rethink sustainability

Soil: food’s forgotten superhero

A single handful of soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth. Beneath our feet billions of bacteria, a dizzying array of fungi, and a multitude of other microorganisms live in a complex and delicate web. Zoom out and these webs expand, as growth-promoting bacteria congregate around roots, and miles-long fungal networks act as information highways through which plants communicate and transport resources. Above ground, we see the trees and vegetation that benefit from soil’s generosity; below ground, the largest organisms on earth are building and being built by the soil ecosystem.

Healthy soils sequester carbon, filter water, prevent floods, secure against drought, nourish the plants that feed us, and even offer antibiotics to treat some of our most challenging infections1. Yet, this hidden world is so little understood that most of the species that inhabit it are yet to be named. Given the essential role soil plays in humanity’s existence, this is a spectacular blind spot.

A single handful of soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth

We have benefitted from this benevolent underworld for millennia, but in recent decades we have come to take it for granted. In Europe, yields of several staple crops have tripled since 19602, but we have achieved this at soil’s expense. Monoculture farming, repeated tilling and ploughing and the indiscriminate use of fertilisers and pesticides have stripped soils of most of what makes them valuable. By some estimates more than half the world’s topsoil has become degraded – without the countless creatures that maintain its structure, soil soon crumbles. Lacking the ability to retain water, or even to support itself, degraded soils risk being washed and blown away, and require increasing chemical input to support crop growth. To build sustainable food systems we must return our soils to health.

Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: how technology is changing the future of agriculture

Healthy soils sequester carbon, filter water, prevent floods, secure against drought, nourish the plants that feed us, and even offer antibiotics to treat some of our most challenging infections

 

Soil in symbiosis

In the early 1980s, a Swiss farmer, Ernst Gotsch, began what would become a ground-breaking experiment. With a degraded patch of land in the Brazilian Amazon, Gotsch set about restoring a productive ecosystem using a system of farming that has become known as syntropic agriculture. Shunning outside inputs, Gotsch harnessed natural processes to capture carbon and unlock nutrients. His work has been spectacularly successful, and large tracts of previously infertile land have been transformed into a productive and self-sustaining forest-farm.

Agroforestry is central to his success. By planting ‘fertiliser trees’ in and around his farmland Gotsch has increased soil stability, fertility, and water retention. Agroforestry has been proven elsewhere, too. In several African nations the planting of trees for natural fertilisation boosted maize yields by up to 100%3; while in Colombia, cattle grazing in agroforestry systems have been found to produce both more and better-quality milk4 than cattle in conventional dairy farms.

Read also: Two challenges, many solutions for investors: where biodiversity protection meets decarbonisation

In the UK, Ian Tolhurst has achieved similar success with his own “stock-free” organic farm. On land that was once so poor it was considered barren, he has achieved crop yields rivalling industrial farms, despite using no livestock products or chemical inputs. Where Gotsch grows crops between his trees, Tolhurst grows “weeds” between his crops, rarely leaving the ground bare. This increases water retention, draws up nutrients, and enhances the soil’s biodiversity. And by leaving untended banks of wildflowers and other vegetation throughout his farm, he provides a home to the insect predators that control aphids and other crop pests. Across decades of production, despite never using fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides, Tolhurst’s farmland has only grown more fertile.

There is no one-size-fits-all methodology to regenerative agriculture, but there is a unifying philosophy, which is to work with nature rather than against it

 

Meanwhile in Central Mexico, Alvaro Nieto is proving that conventional farms can transition to a regenerative model step-by-step. By fostering natural wildlife habitats in and around his farm, and by encouraging non-crop vegetation, over time, Nieto has been able to eliminate pesticide use and dramatically cut the need for fertiliser input. His efforts have seen the level of organic material in his soil – a measure of its health and fertility – increase four-fold.

There is no one size fits all methodology to regenerative agriculture, but there is a unifying philosophy, which is to work with nature rather than against it. Nieto is convinced of this approach, and believes that his success can be replicated elsewhere. He says, “We can make this sustainable. We can work side by side with nature. Once you help nature restore the balance, you restore everything, even your economy. Do it for love or do it for money, but do it.”

 

Making more with less

Working in harmony with nature does not mean eliminating technology. Precision agriculture – the modern innovations that will complement a nature-first approach to farming – allow farmers to increase yields while cutting down on water use, reducing chemical inputs, and even saving fuel needed for farming equipment.

This “sustainable intensification” will be enabled by a wide array of modern solutions, from hardware such as drones, sensors and autonomous or semi-autonomous tractors, to software that monitors and anticipates crop growth. California-based Trimble Inc, for instance, offers satellite-based technology to provide remote guidance for steering farm machinery, and flow control for spraying or spreading. While Kubota Corporation’s pre-production concept tractor offers a vision of the future, designed to take into account weather, soil conditions, and crop growth patterns to ensure optimal inputs and keep tractor mileage to a minimum, all with no human operator needed.

Precision agriculture may promise to reduce the chemical burden on soil, but the agriculture industry is also searching for cleaner chemical inputs in the first place, to reduce both soil damage and the industry’s emissions

 

Many precision agriculture products are designed for industrial-scale farms, but as technology and computing costs fall, a growing range of solutions will become available to smaller holdings. As these solutions become more widespread, the World Economic Forum estimates that precision agriculture could achieve an extra 200 million tonnes in crop production while lowering the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40%5.

Read also: How Japan is using digital farming to make agriculture sustainable

Precision agriculture may promise to reduce the chemical burden on soil, but the agriculture industry is also searching for cleaner chemical inputs in the first place, to reduce both soil damage and the industry’s emissions. Norway-based Yara is one of the world’s biggest fertiliser companies, supplying tens of millions of farmers each year. Today, the company is transitioning to green manufacture, ramping up production of bio-based fertilisers that are better for soil health, and building a renewable energy hydrogen plant that will supply green ammonia – for use in the production of carbon-neutral fertilisers – from 2023. Industry bodies estimate that the market value for bio-based fertilisers will double to USD 16 billion by 2030, while the demand for green ammonia will quintuple to nearly 70 million tonnes per year by 2040.

Combining new technology with ancient wisdom we can re-learn how to live in harmony with the world’s soil, treating it as a symbiotic system that we can partner with, instead of a resource from which we can extract value

 

New and old combined

Building a sustainable global food system demands that we do more with less – producing enough to feed a population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, while at the same time rolling back the damage already done. 115 countries have pledged to do just this, promising to return 20% of all agricultural land to nature by 20306.

Read also: What is the role of investors in financing the transition towards sustainable food systems?

Advances in farming and food production and distribution will make this possible, but capital will be needed. For investors this represents a disruptive opportunity that we believe will be worth USD 1.5 trillion in annual revenues by 2030. The transition is well underway, with some innovative products, such as plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, already reshaping the food industry – here investors can take advantage of rapid demand growth by facilitating the scale-up of production and commercialisation. Other food system transformations – such as software services for precision farming and enabling solutions for more efficient food distribution – attract less publicity but offer similar opportunities. From farm to fork, sustainable finance will drive the changes needed to feed a growing population while using less land, water and chemical inputs.

For investors this represents a disruptive opportunity that we believe will be worth USD 1.5 trillion in annual revenues by 2030

Combining new technology with ancient wisdom we can re-learn how to live in harmony with the world’s soil, treating it as a symbiotic system that we can partner with, instead of a resource from which we can extract value. But time is short. A 3,500 year old Sanskrit proverb warns: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends.” It’s a lesson we’d do well to heed.

 

Powerful Antibiotics Found in Dirt – NIH Director's Blog
Crop Yields - Our World in Data
Trees Provide Boost to African Crop Yields, Study Says - Yale E360
4 Quantity and quality of milk with intensive silvopastorals | Livestock CONtext (contextoganadero.com)
World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
6 UNEP, 2021

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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