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Sustainable soil movement grows at COP15 on land desertification and drought

Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health takes shape
Crops growing in Luwingu, Zambia. CIFOR/Joe Nkadaani

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Healthy soil is crucial for tackling climate change, environmental challenges, building resilience, improving food security and meeting U.N. Sustainable Development Goals on water, human and economic health, yet each year it becomes further degraded.

“We cannot continue business-as-usual,” said Leigh Winowiecki, who leads Soil and Land Health Research  at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), addressing delegates at the U.N. COP15 summit on land desertification and drought in Abidjan.

Winowiecki co-leads the newly launched Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health (CA4SH) with World Food Prize laureate Rattan Lal, who is distinguished professor of soil science at Ohio State University (OSU), and Kelly Witkowski of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) based in Costa Rica.

The coalition, which includes farmers, non-governmental organizations, land rights holders, researchers, multi-sectoral stakeholders and other sustainable soil supporters from the private and public sectors, will advocate for multi-stakeholder action to facilitate the adoption and scaling up of a global mechanism and processes to address soil health globally.

Overcoming the major challenges currently facing smallholder farmers is a central component of the initiative.

In the international arena, Australia stands out as one among a handful of countries with a soil health policy, Winowiecki said. The 10-year strategy launched last year recognizes and values soil as a key national asset worthy of sustainable management to benefit and secure the environment, economy, food, infrastructure, health, biodiversity and communities.

“This is really a ground-breaking achievement because it’s not an agricultural policy. It’s not an agroforestry policy. It’s not a rangelands policy. It’s soil health, across all land uses and it’s about ecosystem restoration,” she said.

Highlights of the summit hosted by the U.N Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought (UNCCD), one of three global treaties adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, included agreements to accelerate the restoration of 1 billion hectares of degraded land by 2030.

The plan involves improving data gathering and monitoring to track progress against the achievement of land restoration commitments, boosting drought resilience, establishing an intergovernmental working group on Drought to investigate possible options, including global policy instruments and regional policy frameworks, to support a shift from reactive to proactive drought management.

Delegates also committed to address forced migration and displacement caused by desertification and land degradation by creating opportunities to increase rural resilience and livelihood stability, and by mobilizing resources for land restoration projects.

They agreed to improve women’s involvement in land management as key for effective land restoration, by addressing land rights challenges by people in vulnerable situations, and collecting gender-disaggregated data on the impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought.

“These are all highly commendable recommendations, we see improving soil health as central to the achievements of these and hope that the next COP will recognize soil health as the unifying factor for any land restoration initiatives,” Winowiecki said.

Focused attention on soil is projected to lead to financial flows, to ensure the goal of addressing implementation barriers: financial incentives for farmers; monitoring barriers; and then encourage more countries to take the lead, or to take to follow the lead of Australia and the European Union, which also issued a soil strategy.”

Many of the significant nutrients in food are only available because they come from the soil, so when soil is managed solely with the metric of yield, the risks to human and environmental health escalate.

“We often don’t make the connection that those nutrients actually come from the soil,” Winowiecki said. “If it’s not available in the soil, then bananas are not going to be high in potassium anymore, for example. So, making that connection between healthy soil and nutritious food is so critical, but we also need to take a whole systems approach. Dr. Lal’s mantra is Healthy Soil equals Healthy Food equals Healthy People equals Healthy Planet.”

In 2022, in addition to COP15, key CA4SH efforts include raising awareness at other international events, such as the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in Berlin, the World Living Soils Forum in Arles-en-Provence, France, and the upcoming U.N. COP27 climate summit in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheik.

The initiative also supports countries with a soil health declaration acknowledging the central role of healthy soil for all three Rio Conventions which, in addition to UNCCD, include the Convention on Biological Diversity and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. All urge activities supporting adaptation to climate change.

For more information on this topic, please contact Leigh Ann Winowiecki at L.A.Winowiecki@cgiar.org.
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