Recognising the value of healthy soils: why business and academia should care
Dr Jonathan Green
23 April 2015
I have always wanted to visit Berlin. To see the Reichstag, to see the Wall. I am now here but I am listening to speakers talking about the importance of soil, at a conference devoted to soil, in the middle of Global Soil Week and, to top it all, it is 2015 – the United Nations’ International Year of Soils. Soil is top of the agenda today. Sightseeing must wait.
Like many of us, I intuitively know that soils are important to our wellbeing. I see different flowers thriving in different soil types, I notice how my vegetables grow better when the nutrients in the soil are supplemented. Yet most of us are unaware of the perils that face soil. The Soils Atlas 2015 has some startling facts: It takes 2,000 years to create 10cm of topsoil, but this can be washed away by heavy rainfall in hours. Every year 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil are lost. That is an astonishing amount. It is the weight of 20 million of the Reichstag’s environmentally friendly glass domes.
Without doing any of the science, I sense that we cannot sustain this level of soil degradation for very long. As such, it is a concern for all of us but, I am particularly interested in understanding the relevance of all this soil degradation for business.
Whilst good soil management has rarely been a front-of-mind concern for consumers, it is increasingly a concern for sustainability and procurement officers. Cocoa, for example, is largely grown on degraded soils that are no longer able to meet growing demand from India and China, limiting opportunities for revenue growth and causing headaches for supply chain managers who want to ensure a reasonably priced future supply.
I work closely with the Natural Capital Leaders Platform at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) where I find it heartening to see major businesses showing leadership in managing their impacts on soil. There are businesses who want to enhance their brand, reduce their costs, increase their revenue and reduce longer-term risks to their supply chains.
Agri-business Olam International, for example, is intensively monitoring and managing the moisture-retention capabilities of soil in its Californian almond orchards, to protect its almond crop from severe drought. Supply risks, potentially higher water costs and brand image are the key drivers here – locally, the almond industry has a lot of bad press for its impact on water scarcity.
In the UK, the Crown Estates, which manages 139,000 hectares of land with profits going directly to the Treasury, has recognised that natural capital resources give agricultural land its value. The health of the soils, the hydrology of the landscape, and the diversity of the wildlife all count. Now, in the same way that it is not okay to sell the fixtures and fittings of your rented house, it is not acceptable to deplete soil nutrients and move on. Just as landlords take inventories when letting a house, the Crown Estates ensures soil health is measured and tenant farmers are incentivised to ensure that they do not degrade (and preferably enhance) soil fertility.
These companies are leading the way and are doing so with a conviction that many in academia also feel but cannot directly act upon. What role, then, do academics have in accelerating such behaviour to become a mainstream concern for businesses?
At CISL, the Natural Capital Leaders Platform works hard to help companies understand, monitor, value and manage their natural capital dependencies. We look at different commodities in turn to better understand the value (not just financial) of healthy ecosystems that provide clean water and pollinators, the cycling of soil nutrients and resilience to changing environmental conditions.
To help address environmental degradation at scale, many more companies need to pay more attention to their reliance on natural capital and understand the risks and opportunities it presents. By working with leadership companies, CISL and academics can provide and promote tangible examples of where the sustainable management of soil, water or biodiversity enhances business profits. Such stories will, we hope, accelerate the uptake and transmission of sustainability practices both within and between businesses.
Here in Berlin, a city of iconic symbols of socio-political events, I find myself hoping that the seeds of a revolution in the way that we view soils fall on fertile ground.