This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes.
With the start of Global Soil Week on 27 October, The World Bank’s Maurizio Guadagni has plenty to share about the importance of healthy soils to improve our agricultural systems. He is connected to the initiative Bridging Agriculture and Conservation led by Bioversity International, which is a member of the CGIAR Consortium and WLE partner.
Soils are the forgotten ecosystem service, says Maurizio Guadagni, rural development specialist at the World Bank. But he is out to change that. For him they are the key to food security, to biodiversity protection and especially to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Guadagni is connected to the new Bridging Agriculture and Conservation Initiative, launched in Brazil in July by Bioversity International with global partners. His pitch is for soils to be at the heart of "climate-smart agriculture".
Since publishing a report called Turn Down The Heat last November, which probed a possible world four degrees warmer, the Bank "has significantly increased its focus on climate change," Guadagni says. "Our new President Jim Yong Kim is giving a lot of attention to the issue and to the links with agriculture, a topic that is dear to me."
With this increased focus on climate change, said Guadagni, the Bank will be building on and scaling up its work in this area. "We are looking to invest in agriculture and climate change. My particular interest is soil," he says. Improved soils can capture carbon to slow climate change, and hold water to improve agriculture's adaptability to the extremes of climate change.
Agriculture is a central part of the problem of climate change, he says. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes estimates that 14 per cent of carbon emissions come from farming. That figure doubles if clearance of forests for farming is included.
But agriculture is the solution, too. "Jointly, agriculture and forestry have more potential to mitigate climate change than the energy sector," he says.
Guadagni spends a lot of his time trying to convince policy makers about the benefits to their farmers and their economies of taking steps to counter climate change. He needs to keep things simple, and show short-term benefits as well as long-term gains.
His big pitch for keeping carbon in soils and making a buck along the way is no-till agriculture. If you don't plough fields between crops, organic matter such as crop residues stays in the soils rather than being oxidised in the air. You keep more carbon in the soil. It works as part of a suite of techniques known as conservation agriculture that includes maintaining year-round soil cover and increased crop rotation.
No till is as good at capturing carbon as planting a rainforest -- and should be treated as a similar "carbon credit" in any future deal to set up a carbon trading system round the world, he says.
"Yes, climate change is now a major focus. The Bank has a long record on sustainable agriculture – the challenge remains mainstreaming climate as a critical pillar of sustainability," Guadagni says.
But he insists that they are much the same thing. As well as capturing carbon, conservation agriculture increases soil fertility, maintains the level of biodiversity in soils, and improves farm profitability."
What about smallholder farmers? Here he concedes that they may not be the easiest to reach with this approach. "The practices involved in conservation agriculture are easier to achieve on mechanized farms," he says. "They have more technical skills, and it is easier for mechanized farms to adopt no-till because they save on fuel costs.”
But small farmers can be involved. "In southern Brazil, where I visited recently, small farmers band together in cooperatives, allowing them to share machinery, for instance. So there you have farmers with 10 hectares or less, practising conservation agriculture."
He is more worried, however, that commercially minded farmers won't see any short-term benefits from conservation agriculture. The key, he suggests, may be in demonstrating to farmers that better soils deliver better instant yields because they can withstand droughts better.
Again he has a simple message. "More fertile soils, containing more organic matter, can hold more water, and keep it through a drought," he says. "Moist soils are also cooler, which means less risks from heat waves." No-till does this, he is quick to point out.
On the dry steppes of Kazakhstan in central Asia, the world's seventh largest wheat exporter, he has recently helped persuade many farmers to adopt no-till. "It has increased yields there by up to 40 per cent during drought years and 30 per cent at other times," he boasts.
And he has a nice story about how no-till leaves crop stubble in the soil through the winter. "The farmers told me that the stubble traps snow on the ground for longer. And as it melts, it seeps into the soil, keeping it cool and moist through the spring. On dry steppe, farmers can see the benefit of that."
Guadagni, like many, see water shortages as a key challenge for feeding the world. Again he is on common ground in stressing the importance of stemming the massive wastage of water on farms – which use around 70 per cent of the freshwater captured from nature.
According to Guadagni, the key here is increasing water efficiency. The World Bank has always argued that market forces can contribute to it. “What is most important is that farmers pay according to the quantity of water they actually use, so they have an incentive to be frugal," says Guadagni “most still do not”. Most irrigation systems charge a fixed amount for access to water, after which farmers can take as much as they want, he says.
Even modest incentives would encourage farmers to save. They don't necessarily have to go for expensive investment in things like drip irrigation. Improvements to flood irrigation – for instance by levelling their fields – can deliver significant savings. "Farming uses so much water that even a 10 per cent saving is a very big deal."
The key is to make agricultural institutions, who are interested in productivity, collaborate with environmental institutions, who are interested in environmental protection. That is where the Bridging Agriculture and Conservation Initiative can play a key role, in helping build connections between agricultural productivity and environmental protection.
So he is hopeful. About water and, especially, about soils. There is plenty to do. "I hope the Bridging Initiative can increase the attention farmers and governments pay to links between water and soils," he says. That way huge gains can be made for both the environment and the livelihoods of farmers.