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Soil health plays a crucial role in the life of our planet

In the pursuit of sustainable agriculture, soil health is often overlooked as an unlikely hero, writes Sue Viljoen.

Some would, however, argue that soil health is a cornerstone of conservation and agriculture, playing a vital role in securing our food supply, mitigating climate change, and fostering resilient ecosystems.

World Soil Day, marked on 5 December 2023, is a reminder of the importance of soil health – and the pivotal link that both water and soil play in sustaining life on Earth. Soil and water are interconnected systems that require interconnected management – the lack thereof resulting in soil erosion, the degradation of soil biodiversity and fertility as well as the decline in water quality and quantity.

Healthy soil is a dynamic, living ecosystem teeming with microorganisms, fungi, and a diversity of organisms that create a balanced and fertile environment, acting as a natural filter purifying and storing water as it infiltrates into the ground.

According to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020, up to 90% of living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems, including some pollinators, spend part of their life cycle in soil habitats; and increasing soil organisms’ diversity is linked to an increase in soil functions and the provision of services. This includes support to plant growth as well as higher nutrient use efficiency.

Conservation practices, such as minimal tillage and cover cropping, promote soil structure and water retention, reducing erosion and nutrient runoff.  This not only safeguards precious topsoil biodiversity but also preserves water quality in nearby rivers and streams.

Regenerative agriculture takes this a step further, viewing agriculture as a symbiotic relationship between the land and the farmer. By embracing practices like crop rotation, agroforestry, and integrating livestock, regenerative agriculture nurtures biodiversity and enhances soil health. The approach aims to regenerate ecological systems and reverse climate change through practices that restore degraded soils. The result is a resilient and self-sustaining agro-ecological farming system that adapts to changing climates while promoting long-term food security.

Beyond its agricultural implications, prioritising soil health is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Healthy soils act as carbon sinks, through storing organic carbon in the soil and mitigating its impact on the climate. Highly decomposed carbon forms particles small enough to chemically bond to the clay in soils, which can stay trapped below ground for hundreds or thousands of years. Integrating trees and perennial crops into agricultural landscapes enhances carbon sequestration through their rooting systems and provides additional benefits such as shade, windbreaks, and habitat for beneficial species.

Nedbank was an initial partner in WWF South Africa’s Conservation Champions initiative (previously called the Biodiversity and Wine initiative), which was started in 2004 with the main aim to reduce the expanding vineyard footprint into highly threatened conservation-worthy habitats.

With 95% of South Africa’s wine grown in the Cape Winelands, also home to two global biodiversity hotspots, a critical and unique partnership between the conservation sector and the wine industry was formed.

Almost 20 years later and with continued support from Nedbank and other funding partners, the WWF Conservation Champions are now representing 60 of the top wine and fruit farming innovators and environmental custodians who are leading the way in their commitments to restoring soil health and farming in harmony with nature. These farms implement regenerative farming practises and are committed to conserving previously un-protected and critically endangered ecosystems. In doing this they are creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems which provide crucial ecosystem services such as increased flow of freshwater, healthy soil and clean air.

Moving from wine into dairy, Trace & Save (Pty) Ltd is a sustainability measuring and monitoring tool designed to holistically encompass natural resource parameters into the profit-and-loss equation of a South African dairy farm. The SWAN system indicators (Soil, Water, Atmosphere and Nutrients) address the challenge of evaluating sustainability with integrity, while providing the technical information and extension support farmers need.

Through regular interactions, farmers are supported to develop their own strategies to farm in a more sustainable and resilient manner. They can use the online platform to track their improvement relative to baseline values.

Through a study that WWF conducted in partnership with Nedbank and Trace & Save, “Making a business case for sustainable dairy production”, data was analysed from 62 pasture-based farms. The study demonstrated that implementing sustainable best practices should lead to more profitable milk production with a lower environmental footprint. For sustainable pasture-based dairy production, healthy soils are paramount for producing sufficient, good quality pastures, where nutrient efficiency is optimised and fertilizer input is minimised. This can only be achieved when soil health and soil carbon levels are improved.

The dairy sector is the first South African farming sector that has had farmers' data submitted for verification and carbon credit issuance through Climate Neutral Group’s AgriCarbon programme. Farmers participating in the programme have their farm level data assessed under Verra’s Verfied Carbon Standard to calculate the tonnes of carbon that have been captured in their soils through the implementation of climate smart land management practices. Farmers such as those from Trace & Save, who have started monitoring their sustainability journeys over recent years, have been ideal candidates to join this innovative carbon market programme.

“Over the past 10 years working with pasture-based dairy farmers, I have found that the farmers who prioritise investing in improving their soil health, and understand the importance of building soil carbon, have received great reward from doing so. Not only does it lead to better yields, more resilient and better-quality pastures and crops, but it also contributes to farmers’ reducing their environmental impact. Due to this, I have noticed a large increase in the adoption of practices that contribute to improved soil health on pasture-based dairy farms, which is encouraging,” says Craig Galloway of Trace & Save.

“As Trace & Save, we are grateful to be able to partner with Nedbank and WWF-SA, since this allows us the opportunity to do research and share insight that we believe can further assist farmers in their sustainability journey."

As we grapple with the challenges of a growing global population and a changing climate, it is imperative to recognise the intrinsic link between soil health and our collective wellbeing. Governments, farmers, and consumers alike must champion policies and practices that prioritise sustainable land management, incentivise regenerative agriculture, and promote a holistic approach to soil stewardship.

In conclusion, the health of our soil is not merely an agricultural concern; it is the cornerstone for the future of our planet. Conservation and regenerative agriculture offer pragmatic solutions to the environmental issues we face, ensuring that the ground beneath our feet remains a source of life, sustenance, and resilience for generations to come. It's time to cultivate a profound respect for the soil – the silent partner that holds the key to a sustainable and thriving future.

*Sue Viljoen is the Catchment Stewardship Coordinator with WWF South Africa.

© Roman Synkevych Unsplash
There is an intrinsic link between soil health and our collective wellbeing.

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