A global agenda for soil carbon, Vermeulen 2019

Compendium Volume 3 Number 1 July 2019

This paper calls for efforts to make farmers, land managers, policy makers, and the public at large keenly aware of the link between soil carbon and its more widely appreciated social outcomes, such as agricultural productivity and food security, improved water quality, flood and drought mitigation, lower rates of migration, biodiversity preservation, and climate change mitigation.

The authors identify three priorities for global action to build soil carbon stocks: (1) build an overarching case and vision for action, led by political champions; (2) build a stronger business case and track-record of success among public and private investors; and (3) establish a more compelling value proposition for farmers and land managers.

Specifically, Vermeulen et al. propose that champions in countries already prioritizing soil carbon in national policy lead efforts to generate greater awareness, such as through

persuasive narratives and campaigns [that] might link soil health and carbon storage to broader societal outcomes with wider political traction. These include double-digit increases in yield potential, particularly on degraded lands, higher household and national food security, reduced risks from disasters, improved water quality and lower rates of displacement and migration [Vermeulen 2019: 3].

They also propose that soil carbon take center stage in discourses on sustainable agriculture, from which it has largely been absent.

To build a business case among potential investors in soil health, the authors suggest, for example, creating “small-scale funds to flow to commercial demonstrations of soil organic carbon that can then be ready for widespread proliferation” [Vermeulen 2019: 3].

The authors stress the importance of demonstrating to farmers the multi-faceted long-term value achieved by incorporating soil-building practices into day-to-day farming operations, including: (1) enhanced productivity, (2) improved risk management (for example, resilience to drought), (3) superior market access (for example, certified value chains), (4) financial returns to carbon assets, and (5) government support (for example, environmental subsidies).

Another priority is “to move beyond stand-alone protocols by building soil organic carbon into existing frameworks from which it is absent, such as UNCCD, UNFCCC, Ramsar and the Global Reporting Initiative” [Vermeulen 2019: 4]. In other words, given the foundational role of soils in ecosystem function (and thus the delivery of vital ecosystem services), improving soil health must be treated as the powerful leverage point that it is for resolving multiple overlapping crises.

Vermeulen, Sonja, et al., 2019, A global agenda for collective action on soil carbon, Nature Sustainability 2, http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/publ/NatureSustainability%202,%202%E2%80%934,%202019%20Vermeulen.pdf.

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