A BRAND-NEW partnership between the world’s leading soil scientists and its largest corporates was announced at COP26, with the purpose of substantially addressing global soil health in the next decade.

The ‘Global Soil Health Programme’ seeks to implement a global framework for the improvement of soil health and the sequestration of carbons in soils and features a consortium of corporates, universities, scientists, and not-for-profits, who together reach around 70% of the world’s farmers.

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Delegates had the opportunity to hear from representatives from Bayer, BASF, and UPL on how they look to use their reach and governance to deliver impact quickly and at scale.

Jonatas Alves, head of soil and seed health at UPL, warned that potentially 90% of global soils will be degraded by 2050 if immediate action isn’t taken to tackle declining soil health.

“We want to work side by side with farmers and mobilise them in to adopting good soil practices. No single government can deliver this solution alone, collaboration is essential, as this is not an agricultural challenge but a society challenge and as a global corporation, we are committed to take advantage of our size, global footprint, and farm intimacy to promote the practices growers can adopt in order to be profitable and sustainable at the same time.”

The panel discussed some of the impending challenges of feeding a growing population in the face of climate change and increasingly turbulent weather patterns.

Delegates heard that even moderately degraded soil produces 30% less food and stores around half the water of healthy soil. Yet by 2050 we will need to produce up to 70% more food while nearly half the world’s population may live in ongoing drought conditions.

Andy Beadle, representing BASF, stressed the need to address soil health in order to improve farming’s climate resilience: “Modern agriculture needs a healthy soil, particularly in relation to enhancing resilience within the agricultural system and if we get it right, a healthy soil enhances below ground biodiversity which feeds in to above ground biodiversity.”

He added that healthy soil enhances its ability to hold water, which he pointed out is of increasing importance in the face of rising incidences of drought globally.

“Healthy soil containing more water and nutrients will deliver to farmers the extra insurance they need in terms of climate conditions in periods of extended drought,” he continued. “Healthy soil has huge potential to look after the movement of water through the soil – if we get the health of soil right, we are also mitigating some of the devastating impacts we are witnessing from the likes of flooding.”

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An Australian livestock farmer challenged the corporates on the panel on their track record for driving unsustainable farming. He said: “One of the ways we created a profitable and resilient climate friendly grazing operation in New South Wales is by weaning ourselves off your products. One of the problems is that farmers have spent too long listening to ‘big ag’ about why they have to keep chasing productivity. We have to get them thinking about resilience, profitability and how to farm in a climate friendly way. How are you going to change your message to farmers?”

Arlene Cotie of Bayer Crop Science responded by saying that Bayer has recognised the need to adjust and change, in line with its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“Our first step in looking at this in the US and in Brazil is to start a programme whereby you don’t have to buy any Bayer products but we are going to pay you for adopting cover crops and no-till. We are not selling cover crops; we have partnered with a cover crop supplier, but we are paying farmers to adopt these practices. Have we got all the answers today? No, but we are starting to make changes and our approach is about the solutions, it is about the services, it is about the whole system.”