Embrace the Earth: Soil health as a foundation to sustainable food systems

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security,True Value of Food27 Sep 2021Yannicke Goris

On 17 September 2021, Rabobank, the Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) organised an online event on soil health as a foundation to sustainable food systems. Less than a week before the UN Food Systems Summit, this event brought together stakeholders from multiple sectors, to exchange their views on the road towards healthy soil across the globe. This article presents the key messages of this online event.

The UN Food Systems Summit

Last week, on 23 September, the first-ever United Nation’s Food Systems Summit (FSS) was organized. An unprecedented event that brought together stakeholders from all sectors to determine how, together, we can realise a sustainable food systems transformation.

The goal: To turn our food systems from an impediment to the 2030 Agenda to a driver for that same Agenda. Never before have so many diverse groups and voices been brought together around this topic. As Dr. Martin Frick, Deputy of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Food System Summit 2021, explained: during the Summit – and all the side events organised in the months leading up to it (including Rabobank event on Sustainability-Linked Loans) – an unprecedented variety of stakeholders was included. Not only governments and multinational bodies, business leaders, civil society organisations, as well as often marginalised groups such as indigenous people, from landless people to small-scale and family farmers have been involved in the conversation. Hence, we are no longer looking at mere technical, top-down discussion: The Summit has heralded a collaborative, cross-sectoral dialogue that explicitly includes grass-roots views.

Famines, which are increasing, are in fact manmade tragedies. We must make famine and mass starvation politically intolerable, morally toxic, ethically unthinkable, and humanly unacceptable through restoration of soil health. 

Soil stewardship and care must be embedded in every fruit and vegetable eaten, in each grain ground into the bread consumed, in every cup of water used, in every breath of air inhaled, in every scenic landscape cherished. 

Therefore, it is time to take positive action by endorsing a coalition for action on soil health. To promote the mantra that ‘good soil = good food = good human health = good ecosystem = good planetary processes’ 

The time to take action is now. 

Dr. Rattan Lal – Soil scientist, professor of soil science, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, and recipient of the 2020 World Food Price.

Soil at the heart of multi-stakeholder dialogue

Less than a week before the Summit, Rabobank, the Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) organised an online event around soil health. Why? Because, as WBCSD director Mr. Peter Bakker eloquently put it: “Meeting the goal of healthy soils is going to be a critical driver for the SDGs. Healthy soils support nature, support climate, support food security and livelihoods.” In other words, soil health is a crucial, indispensable enabler of a sustainable food systems transformation. Without it, this transformation will not likely be achieved.

What we need is an equitable, net-zero, nature-positive food system that nourishes all people with healthy diets

Peter Bakker (WBCSD)

Moderated by Dr. Thouraya Triki, director of the Sustainable Production, Markets and Institutions Division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the online seminar on soil health was marked by the appearance of no less than 11 speakers representing a wide range of sectors and perspectives, including banks, large businesses, civil society, science, policy and farmers. In this way, Rabobank, FMO and WBCSD succeeded in echoing the spirit of the FSS: facilitating a truly cross-sectoral dialogue on the road towards food systems transformation. As Mr. Wiebe Draijer, Chairman of the Rabobank Managing Board argued: “We really need the multi-stakeholder angle to get soil health back on the agenda. […] All the players – locally, regionally and across the food supply chain in which the private sector plays a crucial role, need to be aligned.”

The dividend of healthy soils

It may strike the skeptical reader as remarkable that bankers and the private sector are taking a leading role in driving the dialogue on healthy soils. However, listening carefully to the words of Peter Bakker on the potential of healthy soils, it becomes much less remarkable: “Investing in soils will provide incredible returns and benefits to companies helping to achieve the goals of productivity, of business continuity, of resilience, and of meeting net-zero targets, zero land-conversion and equitable farmer livelihoods. In short, we must invest in soils and treat them as a foundational asset.” Wiebe Draijer (Rabobank), much agreed with his WBCSD colleague and picked up his threat of reasoning: Soil is a key lever of positive change in the food supply chain. “There is a triple dividend that soils bring to life”, Draijer argued: First, healthy soils provide a rich contribution to the SDGs by fostering greater biodiversity, improving water quality, and enhancing resilience against extreme weather. Second, a healthy soil is a perfect place to store carbon. It not only helps reduce the carbon footprint; it also helps reduce the total emission of carbon into the atmosphere.  And third, healthy soils generate more productive outcomes which means that investing in healthy soil is, besides a necessity and moral obligation, an economically viable and profitable strategy.

Soil is the battery for life

Wiebe Draijer (Rabobank)


Mr. Michael Jongeneel, recently appointed CEO of FMO, regards the bank’s attention for soil health as entirely logical, if not of the greatest necessity. FMO is one of the few development. For a vast amount of people in the developing world agriculture constitutes the main source of income. Yet, especially in developing countries and among smallholder farmers certain farming practices persist with a high risk of soil health deterioration, impacting these farmers directly and also contributing to climate change. For FMO this constitutes an important opportunity to improve practices, stop the degradation of soil health and, by consequence, contribute to climate change adaptation and sustainable food production.

Science and policy on the same page

Starting from the very introduction of this exchange it was made crystal clear that soil health is an indispensable step in the journey towards a sustainable food systems transformation. What is needed to realise the achievement and protection of healthy soils was discussed in more detail from both a scientific and policy perspective. Dr. Leigh Ann Winowiecki is a Soil Systems Scientist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF) based in Nairobi, Kenya. According to the soil expert, and underlining the messages of both Bakker and Frick, global crises are often connected through land, making soil stewardship crucial to achieve multiple goals. In answer to the question ‘what is needed?’ Winowiecki points to three key conditions:

1) economic incentives to farmers for implementing healthy soil;

2) multi-stakeholder groups that move from platforms to action, working together across initiatives and sectors to fill existing gaps; and

3) new evidence and adequate monitoring, taking into account much more than input and output.

Especially on this third point, Winowiecki finds support from the policy perspective, represented by Dr. Annette Schneegans, Senior Expert at the European Commission, Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development. Both speakers fervently argued for a global soil monitoring programme. Presently, Schneegans explained, “only a few member states [of the EU] have active monitoring programmes. Often the data across countries cannot be compared and at global level the same applies.” But if we cannot track our progress adequately, there is no sense in setting policy targets and efforts to move ahead will remain too limited.

Additionally, both Winowiecki and Schneegans called for more adequate translation of science and solutions into meaningful action and application. The problem, however, is that the many scientific insights and solutions that are being generated are not tested and applied in the areas where they are most needed. Developing context-specific interventions requires testing and adjusting of solutions in various places, open collaboration and knowledge exchange, and the engagement of a broad network of stakeholders to transform our agricultural systems for the benefit of people and nature.

The farmer’s backyard

When talking about soil health, one crucial actor cannot be left unmentioned: the farmer. As Wiebe Draijer put it: “At the heart of any transition is the farmer. And in the backyard of any farmer is the soil that he or she ploughs.” It is, however, unreasonable and ineffective to demand of farmers to take the lead on the road towards healthy soils. With the vast amount of smallholder farmers responsible for the global food production, Leigh Ann Winowiecki explains, support and incentives – both economically and otherwise – are needed to ensure that they implement healthy soil practices on their farms. Such incentives at scale demand investments at scale. And that is where FMO comes in. In the field of soil health promotion and food systems transformation, FMO does not operate as a regular, commercial bank. Using blended finance methods – pooling resources from commercial investors with funds from various governments and donors – allows for FMO, and increasingly also commercial banks such as Rabobank, to go into areas where commercial banks usually cannot venture. Here, the bank can experiment with innovative solutions for climate change prevention and adaptation; take on high risk, high impact projects; and invest in and extend loans to agricultural companies that are pioneers in promoting and applying practices for healthy soils. Ledesma and Sucafina Rwanda (Rwacof) are two such examples.

Sharing a success story of regenerative agriculture is Andres Blaquier. Andres is the director of the Livestock and Agricultural business unit of Argentinian agri-industrial company Ledesma, a 111-year-old Argentinian group of agri-food companies with a strong focus on long term sustainability, integrating biodiversity management as a core aspect of its operations. In his presentation, Andres shares the story of Ledesma’s Centella Ranch, located in the eastern part of Argentina. The long-term sustainability of farming at the Centella Ranch, acquired by Ledesma in the 80s, was highly compromised due to massive soil erosion. The poor soil, combined with heavy rainfalls that could not be properly absorbed, resulted in increasing soil degradation and declining crop yields. Additionally, years of herbicide use led to weed resistance, making it increasingly difficult and expensive to control them. To improve crop yields and put a stop to the soil degradation, in 2000 Ledesma started an ambitious 25 year-long, three phase programme, aimed at transforming the entire Centella Ranch into a profitable and sustainable farm. First, a terrasse system was created, fostering greater water absorption for the agricultural lands. Second, land reserved for conservation increased to 4,500 hectares – creating a Natural Reserve – and almost 1,000 hectares more were reserved as protective vegetated areas, used for drainage and biodiversity corridors. And in the third and final phase, FMO supported Ledesma in its efforts to convert areas with low agricultural yields into permanent pastures and implement service crops such as black oats and clovers which, combined with livestock grazing, reduced erosion even further. Today, Ledesma’s Centella Ranch produces sustainably 60,000 tons of grains and 6 million kg of beef per year, having reduced erosion to zero, reduced herbicide use by 70 times, with negative GHG emissions balance of 40,000 tons of CO2 per year, and manages a Natural Reserve with high biodiversity values.

Also representing the farmers in this seminar is Max Veglio, managing director of Rwacof, the Rwandan branch of coffee company Sucafina. Supported by FMO, and in collaboration with its sustainability partner, the Kahawatu Foundation, invests heavily in farmer training and good agricultural practices, and focuses on improving the financial situation of its wide network of Rwandan farmers. Moreover, to make its coffee farming more profitable and sustainable, the company has devoted much time and resources to gather data on the state of the soil and the needs of the farmers it employs. Such data gathering results in effective response, tailored to the needs of the farmers and generating long-term healthy productivity. The story of Francine (see textbox) shows clearly what data about soil health and fit-for-purpose support can mean for the lives and livelihoods of the farmers taking care of our food supplies and soils.

Francine’s soil

Francine is a Rwandan small-scale farmer selling her coffee to Rwacof. From a survey conducted among its farmers, Rwacof learned that Francine’s household consists of 7 people – 6 of whom are adults – who rely heavily on the income generated by the produce coming from Francine’s 0.5 ha of land. Francine, who does not own a mobile phone, has indicated that she would very much welcome technical advice and assistance from Rwacof. But what type of advice and assistance would be most useful to her and her farm?

Rwacof researchers took various samples of Francine’s soil and quickly found that it was both too acidic and lacked organic matter. To fix those issues Francine would be advised to invest a 115USD in composting and liming. If this investment is extended for a period of approximately 3 years, Francine’s yields should at least double.

Francine had no idea about the poor state of her soils and that compost and lime would provide the solution. She lacked, in other words, vital data. Yet, even if she had had access to this information, Francine would not have invested. All her income – 500 USD a year – was already fully committed and nothing was left to invest. Borrowing options available came at staggering interest rates, which Francine could only hope to pay up if the compost and lime would have immediate impact. Three years waiting – which would be required – is simply too long. Clearly, to ensure that Francine’s farming practices contribute to healthy soils and generate sustainable produce, she needs support. And that is what Rwacof, supported by FMO, has been able to supply.

Francine’s case is exemplary for smallholder farmers across the globe who are gradually degrading the soils they are dependent on for a three coinciding reasons: Lack of technical knowledge, lack of access to soil data, and a lack of access to multi-year affordable finance. Three main stakeholders have a role to play to address these issues. The company, in this case Rwacof, can provide good data, technical support and take up some of the risk of farmer’s loans. International banks, for their part, can encourage origin banks to extend loans to smallholders and at the same time take over part of the risk that comes with those loans. Finally, roaster clients can contribute to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the health of the soils they farm by buying organic and setting (and sticking to) commitments with regards to carbon emissions and storage.

Sucafina and Ledesma are by no means the only agricultural companies that are actively working towards healthy soils and supporting their farmers to help realise that goal. PepsiCo, the multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation has recently launched its impact-driven Positive Agriculture ambition, explained in this seminar by Dr. Christine Daugherty, Vice President of PepsiCo Sustainable Agriculture & Responsible Sourcing. PepsiCo is committed to spread the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices; improve the livelihoods of all people working in its agricultural supply chains, including economically empowering women; and sustainably source 100% of key ingredients for its many products. Reaffirming the words of Wiebe Draijer, Daugherty points to the crucial role of the farmer in realising PepsiCo’s goals and the transformation it envisions. However, she also recognises the struggles Francine and so many other farmers working across the globe are facing. “We cannot expect them to make changes without taking on additional risk. And that is why we are discussing with all of the partners here today: How do we mitigate that risk?” PepsiCo is working with farmers to cost-share, collaborate and learn from on another in various ways.  The company encourages them to take on practices such as planting cover crops and reducing the amount of pesticides and fertilizers and employs demonstration farms for peer-to-peer, farmer-to-farmer learning.

A passionate call to action

Business, finance, policy, science, and farmers – multiple perspectives on the importance, challenges and potential of soil health were heard over the course of this seminar. To close the afternoon, two passionate speakers took the virtual stage and shared their final remarks: Dr. João Campari, Global Food Practice Leader of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and Dr. Rattan Lal, professor of soil science, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, and recipient of the 2020 World Food Price.

Marked by a great sense of urgency as well as optimism, Dr. Lal’s closing speech began with a warning: We are not on track with the SDGs. However, as Lal noted, “it is not yet too late”. We need to take positive action immediately, and the upcoming FSS presents a unique opportunity to do so. Investing in soil health, Dr. Lal points out, should be a top priority. First, because healthy soils help combat food insecurity and famine: “More than 2 billion people still remain malnourished because they have no access to healthy food. The food they consume is grown on depleted and degraded soil, devoid of micronutrients.” Second, because healthy soils are vital for climate change mitigation: “Water security, water quality, water renewability, mass extinction, deforestation […]. The solution to all those lies in soil health!” João Campari could only agree with Dr. Lal and his passionate call to action. “When we talk about soil we immediately think of it as a factor of production whose only service is to produce food,” he noted. As this seminar and Dr. Lal clearly showed, however, soil is about much more than that. “It is a living ecosystem,” Campari added. “And must start treating it as our greatest environmental asset.” Building on all the inspiring words and exemplary practices of the contributors to this seminar, Campari, closing the seminar called upon them to continue and scale up their efforts: “I hope to see the public and private sectors come together, to support farmers in the transition to more nature positive production, without compromising the human right to safe, healthy and nutritious food.” And key to this transition – the reader may have expected it by now – is soil health!

Soil is not only a of production. It is a living ecosystem that supports life on earth, including our own

João Campari (WWF)


Curious to learn more? Some resources that might interest you:

Opinion: How soil can save us all – by Dr. Rattan Lal

Rabobank’s Carbon Bank – Rabobank

Fact sheet on healthy soils for healthy food – FAO

Healthy soil for a healthy future – by João Campari

Soil management – FMO

Coalition of Action for Soil Health: Global Soil Hub – video by the Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health (CA4SH)

Missed the event?

You can find the whole session on Youtube at this link.