Challenges and opportunities for businesses in improving soil health and protecting biodiversity

Josephine Head, Senior Research Lead on Sustainable Agriculture at Earthwatch Europe, explains how businesses can play a central role in improving soil health and protecting biodiversity.

The impacts of agriculture on the planet are significant and attract increasing attention from governments, businesses and the public around the world.

At the moment, agricultural production takes up around 50% of liveable land. Over the last 20 years the amount of land area harvested has increased by 16%. The area under irrigation has doubled, and agricultural production has grown threefold. Human population is projected to rise from 7.7 billion to 10 billion by 2050. This means sustainably providing enough nutritious food will be a major challenge!

These challenges are well established and widely accepted. Yet, change is not happening fast enough at any level – government policy, business decision-making or individual behaviours at the individual level.

An important part of Earthwatch’s work focuses on driving environmentally sustainable agriculture through research and engagement, with specific focus on soil health and biodiversity. While climate change attracts a lot of attention at a global level, soil health and biodiversity are given less, despite the clear links between these three issues. Soil health and biodiversity are essential to agricultural production and underpin the supply chain. It is estimated that 99.7% of our global food calories come from the soil, and 75% of food crop types rely on animal pollination.

We have recently published a report, ‘Soil Health, Biodiversity and the Business Case for Sustainable Agriculture’, exploring the impact of agriculture on soil health and biodiversity. It highlights their business relevance and identifies practical actions businesses can take to work with farmers to improve soil health and biodiversity within their supply chains. We have used the report to shape and focus our interactions with business.

Following the publication of this report, Earthwatch hosted a workshop exploring ways of making improvements in agricultural supply chains. The workshop was well attended by professionals in the food and beverage sector. While the participants came from various backgrounds and had different experiences, they all shared a common desire to improve sustainability within their supply chains, and support farmers to monitor and manage their environmental impacts.

The workshop discussions confirmed the challenges that the industry is facing. It also highlighted the passion and drive to work together to find solutions. Some of the main challenges that emerged were:

    1.   A shared understanding of what information is needed to make better decisions is currently lacking. While research may have been done, much of it is not published or translated into a format appropriate for farmers and businesses.

    2.   Short-term farm tenancies and ownership structures can make long-term investment and decision-making challenging to put in place.

    3.   Regulations and busy workloads, as well as a lack of clear guidance, can inhibit farmers and prevent them from getting involved in programmes that promote sustainability.

Some positive ideas that emerged to address these challenges were:

    1.   Encourage collaboration on environmental challenges in specific growing regions (e.g. on reducing water stress in arid areas, or soil erosion in areas prone to flooding). Synthesise research and make it available and usable for growers and businesses. Establish a learning network of companies to share interesting research findings on soil health or biodiversity protection on farms, as well as opportunities to get involved in work.

    2.   Long term thinking and collaboration may need remodelling of supply chains and procurement processes. For example, by agreeing longer term contracts, and providing transparency on long term demand. In addition, optionality is key. Businesses could provide a range of options and measures so that farmers can identify the one that works for their farm and business.

    3.   Making issues locally relevant and having local representatives in the field who are respected and knowledgeable of local conditions and challenges. Those working directly with farmers should speak their language and seek to look at things from their perspective. For example, talking about profits and losses rather than nutrient losses and soil erosion. Also, establishing communities to support learnings between supplier farm groups, sharing skills and technologies.

Earthwatch has a long history of uniting people to address the environmental challenges which affect us all. We are using the key learnings from this workshop to build on our work with businesses and farmers to implement practical actions that improve sustainability outcomes.

Josephine Head is Senior Research Lead – Sustainable Agriculture at Earthwatch Europe.