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8 June 2020

The Good Earth

We need to dig deep into the roots of our differences so we can come together to save soil and, by extension, humanity.

CEEweb Series: Our Common Ground (4/4)

Other stories in CEEweb's 'Our Common Ground' Series:
Part 1 - Soil: The forgotten miracle
Part 2 - Know your roots
Part 3 - One reaps what one sows

By Andreas Candido

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” No muddy statement here by environmentalist, novelist, and poet Wendel Berry, author of The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

As we enter the final part of our CEEweb series ‘Our Common Ground,’ Berry’s statement is an apt reminder of why we must implement solutions to stop harming our soil — harming ourselves. Having already looked at soil’s importance, its history, the science behind it, and the threats it faces — mostly coming from humankind — this series closure will focus on how we can tackle current and future problems and challenges surrounding soil.

This series is based on the fantastic work of the ‘Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas.’*

How do we avoid our end?

The international community is one of the key players in the upcoming struggle humankind will be facing to confront a very diverse set of environmental-related challenges. Conservation of soil and its biodiversity will be one of them. To address this, international agreements and, more importantly, enforcement, will be necessary to achieve these goals. The multitude of environmental crises that we face are not contained in one place but are global issues. As the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, global co-operation can be a force for good, but failure to coordinate can result in devastating consequences.

In order to get a better understanding of how much more work is needed, lets first take a look at the already existing agreements.

  • The World Soil Charter was formulated in 1981 and consisted of a majority of Member States of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) — who was also the organisation who brokered the agreement. The Charter was renewed in 2015 to cover the rapid advances in technologies, techniques, and the threat to our planet.
  • The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognises soil as one of the key pillars to achieving the SDGs. Soil is very important in almost half of those goals: zero hunger, clean water, sustainable cities and communities, life on land and underwater, responsible consumption and production, and climate change. These goals were released in 2015 and are part of a wider effort to eradicate the most pressing global problems in the time-lapse of fifteen years.
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the main international agreement that protects biodiversity. Still, for the most part of it, national governments are responsible for maintaining and developing strategies for biodiversity protection and sustainability. Most existing protections focus on protecting above-ground biodiversity. Existing agreements focus on protecting threatened or endangered species. For example, protections around endangered animals habitats, nature reserves, the ivory export ban, greenbelts, to name a few. However, there is very little protection of organisms that live in the soil.

These international agreements and goals are all very important and each has added more tools to belts of conservationists and environmentalists. However, as is clear, they are not enough. As things are, these agreements are not completely equipped to handle the crisis we find ourselves in. New agreements with real teeth have been scarce in recent years, despite the ever louder clamors for a greener society. Gladly, now it seems the European Union (EU) might have started breaking this cycle.

Education, awareness, and participation from everyday citizens and decision-makers need to be one of the key tenets underpinning our international agreements.

Europe leads the charge – but is it enough?

In May 2020, the EU released the ‘Biodiversity Strategy 2030’ which fits into the wider European Green Deal. The proposal sets out some important blueprints for biodiversity and soil protections which are aimed to be implemented in the next decade.

  • Expansion of natural areas: The strategy calls upon members to expand the EU-wide network of protected areas on land and at sea by building upon the Natura 2000 network programme. The plans also specifically call for the strict protection of areas of very high very biodiversity and climate value.
  • Restoration plan: The EU wants to aim to help restore ecosystems across its territory. Afterward, they plan on phasing in the sustainable management of these areas. This section of the plan is aimed strongly at countering biodiversity loss. Additionally, it aims to plant 3 billion trees across Europe over the next decade.
  • Economic benefits: The plan puts forth compelling economic arguments for the need for more biodiversity — as Europe begins to look towards recovery. According to the World Economic Forum, over half of the global GDP depends on nature and the services it provides, with three key economic sectors – construction, agriculture, and food and drink – all highly dependent on it.
  • Global drive: The EU is also calling on Europeans to act by example and, perhaps, set the stage for future international agreements in this area. The European Commission (EC) has called for the Member States to adopt ‘an ambitious global biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity.’

The strategy is a compelling and ambitious one that recognises many of the issues facing biodiversity. Importantly, the soil is one of the key pillars that is addressed in this plan. Adopting sustainable soil management practices, identifying contaminated soil sites, restoring degraded soils, defining their ecological status, restoration objectives, and improving soil monitoring are just some of the proposals and ideas put forth.

The Commission says that updating the EU Soil Thematic Strategy and adopting the Zero Pollution Plan for Air, Water and Soil, both to happen in 2021, is how they will start achieving these aims. There is also an upcoming Strategy for a Sustainable Built Environment which aims to address soil sealing and rehabilitation of contaminated brownfields. 

Most certainly, Member States still have to adopt these measures. Yet, the proposal is very promising. It is a strong sign that the EC is serious about creating a greener future for Europe, — the kind of future EU citizens have been demanding. Furthermore, it highlights that the benefits will not just be contained in nature. From economics to public health, increasing soil biodiversity, and saving our current ecosystems will mean we will reap the benefits of our investment. This proposal recognises that; but what about member states?

Overall, the European proposal, even if fully adopted, cannot be seen as a sign of victory. The fight is long, hard, and up-hill. Our existing structures will need to be reshaped, rethought, and re-executed differently than that that we have previously built. As humankind is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, protecting our soil will be more important than ever.

We will be required to find the right solutions to create nearly double our current food rate by 2050. And this will, without a doubt, need innovation and cooperation as a basis. To do so sustainably, while reducing our current impact, will require all hands on deck. It is a strong step in the right direction, indeed, but only a first step.

The future of soil is in our hands. Time is running out to reverse the substantial damage already done and to avoid harming our soil beyond repair.

What Does Our Future Hold?

What our future holds depends on us. The EU has shown a willingness to become a world leader in climate affairs and it has now extended this ambition to biodiversity. Awareness of the links between public health and biodiversity is, indeed, increasing. Decision-makers are listening and actions are finally being taken to take care of our soil.

But the question remains: will this be enough?

Knowledge Sharing will be key. Education, awareness, and participation from everyday citizens and decision-makers need to be one of the key tenets underpinning our international agreements. By involving local communities and citizens currently affected by new rules changes and efforts to create more sustainable practices, cooperativeness, and willingness to become a part of these needed changes have proven to increase — as long as there exists a proper outreach. Teaching people on the importance of soil and bringing together multiple shareholders from across society can be invaluable to fostering an environment that allows for the successful implementation of international agreements at a local level.

Still, it should not just be contained to local communities, either. Everyone can benefit from getting more involved and taking more interest in the building block of life we take for granted. The more people become aware of the issues surrounding soil, the more they can hold decision-makers accountable. This is Democracy 101.

Enforcing our current agreements and building new ones will have to be a cornerstone of our future policies. These policies need to be accompanied by real enforcement — often lacking in the past — and provide alternative solutions for those who will struggle to pivot towards sustainable practices. These agreements also need to help bring experts from different fields who traditionally may not have worked together. By empowering local governments, proving all-encompassing expert advice, and creating regulatory and enforceable frameworks that are ambitious but achievable, we can create an environment for extraordinary change.

This really is not about fanciful thinking. To not save our soil would be the equivalent of starving and, nevertheless, putting poison to the food in front of us. Or, in the words of the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl Buck, within her acclaimed novel The Good Earth: “ ‘Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.’ It was true that all their lives depended upon the earth.”

This article is the fourth of the CEEweb series ‘Our common ground,’ part of a wider drive to help teach people about the importance of soil and how we can protect it from the many threats it faces.

*The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, authoring body of the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, aims to bring awareness and educate on the importance of soil in our daily lives. The hope is that by increasing awareness on these aspects, people will have a greater understanding of the need for rich, diverse environments to protect our way of life and our planet. The Atlas was published by the European Commission in partnership with over 20 universities and organisations. It is free for anyone to download.