Putting a price on soil

Esther Ngumbi


On December 5, the world marked World Soil Day. The theme this year, “Stop Soil Erosion, Save our Future,” was chosen to raise awareness of the damage being done to soils around the world and start the process of reversing this trend. But how do we get more people to care about soil?

There is no doubt that they should. The importance of soil to human civilization cannot be overestimated – it is present in everything we touch. Healthy soil underpins agriculture, farm productivity, and national economies. It grows healthy food, reduces nutrient losses to waterways, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, increases carbon sequestration, and strengthens biodiversity, all while enabling crops to cope with the changing climate. As such, soil should be viewed as a natural, national, and strategic asset that must be managed wisely.

Yet around the world, soils are being eroded, dried out, and degraded, owing to poor land use and intensive agricultural practices that deplete soil nutrients. Other factors contributing to poor soil health and erosion include deforestation, excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, and overgrazing. Ultimately, these practices literally mine the life out of soils.

It is time to reverse this damaging trend. That means stopping soil erosion and other practices that are robbing our soils – and the billions of microorganisms and organisms that live in them – of their health. The question, then, is how to get more people to care?

One way to ensure that national governments and citizens appreciate soils and the value they hold is to put an economic price tag on them. Compelling recent evidence suggests that there are substantial profits to be made from caring about soils.

For example, a report released in July by the Croatan Institute, targeting mainly investors, agricultural practitioners, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, highlighted more than 320 billion U.S. dollars in investment opportunities for sustainable food and agriculture, including 70 opportunities in regenerative agriculture worth 47.5 billion U.S. dollars. Likewise, an article published in 2017 in Nature made a compelling business case that companies’ bottom lines and their ability to remain competitive are closely connected to soil health, implying that mitigation of soil degradation minimizes economic risks.

Putting a price tag on soil is the right way to encourage the necessary efforts. Regenerative agriculture, while encompassing many other principles, comprises sustainable farming practices such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, intercropping, diversified crop rotations, rotational grazing, composting, and mulching. The goal is to build up and diversify soil organic matter, thereby promoting soil health, and mitigate climate change through the sequestering of carbon.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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