G8 1st Food Security Working Group Meeting: Healthy Soil for Future Generations
Moscow, Russian Federation, February 27-28, 2014
Under the presidency of the Russian Federation, the G8 Food Security Working Group recognized the underlying importance of healthy soils for food security - and the threat posed to humanity by their loss. Mark Holderness, GFAR Executive Secretary, was invited to take part in the technical session of the G8 Food Security Working Group in Moscow, alongside representatives from international soil health initiatives in FAO, the World Bank, national soil experts from the Russian Federation and senior technical  representatives from the G8 Nations.
The meeting focused on soils as an essential resource, yet one which is under pressure around the world. Soil is a core component of land resources, the foundation of agricultural development and ecological sustainability and the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production and for many critical ecological services. Soil is a complex, dynamic living system which varies widely from place to place. The area of productive soil is limited and is under increasing pressure of intensification and competing uses for cropping, forestry and pasture/rangeland, and to satisfy demands of the growing population for food and energy production and raw materials extraction. Net effects include soil erosion, salinization and the loss of fertile lands to competing demands such as housing.
A series of presentations by eminent soil scientists proposed that the G8 should focus on soil health issues and developing sustainable approaches to soil management and agricultural productivity. The meeting explored an aspiration for G8 countries  to reach zero net land degradation by 2020, with NEPAD to follow by 2030. It also provided political support to FAO for voluntary guidelines of soil resources and processes for global soil monitoring, supporting activities for mitigating soil degradation and establishing a global inventory of soil resources.
A wide range of from Russian and other experts addressed the global scale of the challenge of soil heath, for example Russia has 55% of the worlds black soil and 10% of the worlds cultivated land, yet  66 million ha of Russia (58.5% of arable land) are subject to erosion and 40% to increasing salinity. 97% of all food products are produced worldwide on agricultural areas representing just 9% of the Earth's surface. Due to desertification and related man-made soil degradation processes such as inappropriate tillage, 12 million hectares of land turn into artificial deserts annually. If this tendency is not averted, two thirds of the world's arable areas risk losing their productivity. The meeting recognized the need to take stock of the land and soil required to maintain soil fertility and through this, the food security of rural populations. There is a clear imperative worldwide to address soil conservation and sustainable intensification of systems, moving beyond the solely productivity focus of the green revolution, where huge productivity increases were achieved, but with a high price paid in soil health.
A variety of solutions were proposed towards sustainable intensification of soil use, including: greater use of conservation agriculture; including soil protection and reclamation and sustainable land management in emerging markets that provide an economic value to ecosystem services; management practices for climate change adaptation and mitigation and resilience to changing weather extremes and protection and management of organic carbon rich soils, notably peatlands and permafrost areas. Soil degradation control will be expensive and require extensive innovation, education and advocacy, but inaction is even more costly.
Policy options were addressed. Rio+20 called for a zero net land degradation initiative, with land degradation neutrality. However this is not a standard target and  each country is able to declare its own ambition. The discussions strongly recognized that food security is not just about agricultural productivity, but also about the way we manage natural capital. At present, short term gains have been prevailing over long term planning. This is why the G8 under the Russian Presidency was taking up a G8 commitment for delivering long-term change, and to inspire change in developing countries also.
There were many calls for human-induced land degradation and land degradation neutrality goals to be included within the post-2015 sustainable development goals in order to inspire change towards measureable outcomes. Land and water access property rights are highly relevant, as they have profound implications for soil degradation. Protecting the ecological functions of soils was seen as a greatly under-addressed area.
GFAR inputs emphasized the need to include farmers as central to these processes, including land rights, tradeoffs of implementing long term practices compared with practices addressing immediate needs and the poverty implications of land tenure and soil degradation. Voluntary guidelines on land tenure are also advocating for reduction in soil degradation and  how to implement the guidelines in ways that will reduce losses through measures such as soil conservation that contribute to effective land use.
The Russian Moderators sought to find common ground with previous commitments such as the voluntary guidelines on land use, but the main focus here was the technical question of how to address soil conservation. There have been several assessments of land degradation in drylands, such as those of UNEP, but large scale GIS data still needs to be ‘ground-truthed’.
Voluntary guidelines for managing soil resources and guidelines for land use planning were introduced by FAO, as was the Global Soil Partnership. Regional and sub-regional soil partnerships are now required. The World Soil Charter was put in place in 1981, setting out principles and guidelines for optimum use of the world’s Natural  Resources. The Soil Charter provides a constitution and the soil sustainability guidelines the practical tool as to how we can proceed together. The Charter remains useful, but chronically requires updating , a process that will be ongoing through 2014-2015, with review by a plenary assembly in July 2014. The intention is that the guiding principles will be developed into detailed actions for implementation, an essential shift from guidelines to actions. This also requires an improved definition of  land degradation neutrality and better standardized methods to evaluate soil degradation. 
Measures needed are a mixture of advocacy and technical advances. The Russian Society of Soil Scientists discussed systems of optimizing management of soil resources and the need to find measures relevant to each country and context that will manage and conserve soils. Raising awareness in the wider community was recognized as a huge need.  Many countries have good understanding of their soils but we lack a harmonized global system – yet many questions are of global relevance – how much arable land is being lost, where are the rates of soil change affecting ecosystem services, how much food & fibre can the land produce? Soil carbon data is also very patchy and much more information is needed on how systems function. Much soil data is of patchy quality and derives from the 1970s or earlier, since when there has been a very significant disinvestment in soil science, with very few mid-career soil scientists now active. There is a great need to strengthen national soil institutions, enhancing soil monitoring and information and introduce soil conservation research and extension where it is missing.
Clearly in moving towards a global system, building from national systems, and a distributed design, built from regions, there is a need to balance soil monitoring and mapping with finite resources and make use of the revolution in new technologies for measuring soils. The aim of a Global soil information system  will be to cross link field data with remote-sensing data. This alone requires major investment into technical efforts and teams to deliver such studies, such as the BMGF investment in African soil mapping. It will be important to mobilize resources by capitalizing on the 2015 International year of soils.
Great advances in various forms of information are opening up new possibilities for soil mapping,  but this remains geographically patchy and countries all have unique soils. Different soil classification systems also need cross-correlation, between countries. GFAR is working to bring together the GODAN and CIARD data platforms in order to create new momentum on opening access to data such as this. Cross-linkage to technical and advocacy measures offers great scope for focusing on interoperability of data and production of field level applications. Crop models are very detailed now, with rainfall, wind and temperature data all available by remote sensing – but these need to be cross-linked with good soil data.
Global soil degradation also creates potential for a climate smart response. Degraded soils are a key limiting factor for agriculture yields – soils matter for productivity and for resilience, and for the carbon footprint of agriculture. Soils can store 1.5 to 4/5 Gigatons per year, yet soil organic matter is generally falling.
The meeting produced much technical evidence of the need for reinvestment in soil science, education and extension, to tailor actions for diverse agricultural systems. GFAR outlined the integrated agricultural innovation investment facility now proposed with IFAD. The concept was well received and recommended for follow through with the intended B8 meeting.
Unfortunately, political events occurring in Ukraine shortly after the meeting have prevented carry through of these actions, but it is to be hoped that these measures and actions will be picked up in measures towards the International Year of Soils and in continued Global Soil Partnership actions and those towards an Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture.