Lal was addressing the Conference of Ministers of Agriculture of the Americas at IICA Headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica.
San Jose, 6 October 2023 (IICA). The scientist, Rattan Lal, who is the world’s leading authority on soil sciences and the 2020 recipient of the World Food Prize, urged senior agricultural officials from the hemisphere, attending the Conference of Ministers of Agriculture of the Americas 2023 in San Jose, Costa Rica, to advocate for the passage of a law on soil health, in light of the strategic role of this natural resource for agriculture, environmental sustainability and global food security.
“A law on soil health should be a national priority and I truly hope that countries will introduce laws of this kind. Be proactive when you return to your countries; speak with your presidents and ensure that this law includes a clause stipulating that farmers should be rewarded carbon credits for their ecosystem services and conservation practices, to protect the crops that we already have. Stand up for what you believe in, or we will be left behind”, warned Lal, in a rousing presentation at the meeting convened by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).
Lal—an IICA Goodwill Ambassador and IICA Chair in Soil Sciences, who is internationally recognized for his work on the soil’s potential to resolve global problems such as climate change, food security and water quality—threw out the challenge at a forum on “Scaling up Climate Funding: Opportunities for Agriculture”. The forum was one of the agenda items of the ministerial conference that brought together 32 ministers of the Americas, senior national authorities and representatives of international organizations, rural leaders, world renowned academics and representatives of the production and industrial sectors.
In his address, Lal, who also heads the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (CMASC) at The Ohio State University, stressed that the region’s agriculture sector must make significant headway in what he referred to as “carbon farming”, which will be key to “tackling climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals”.
“Let us improve soil health, productivity and resilience by restoring carbon to the soil. Given the potential of carbon sequestration and if we manage the soils correctly, we can mitigate climate change and achieve sustainable development goals such as no poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities and clean water and sanitation – goals that we are not achieving because soil, a factor that is common to all of them, is not even mentioned”, he argued.
In his presentation, Lal referred to “Living Soils of the Americas” – a joint CMASC-IICA initiative that coordinates public and private efforts in the fight against soil degradation – a phenomenon that threatens to undermine countries’ ability to sustainably satisfy the demand for food.
“We are observing that soils are losing carbon”, said Lal, “through the extraction of soil compost, crop residue and biomass and as a result of erosion and decomposition, causing agricultural production yields to fall. We are aiming to reverse the process with the IICA program, and that is our focus”.
Farmers and the private sector as leading players
The scientist told the ministers that “soil has divine powers”, given its critical importance to the health of humans, the planet and even to world peace. He pointed out that only farmers can restore it and must recognize that they are the major stewards of the national resources that are fundamental to their production activities.
He insisted that, “Farmers must be remunerated for sustainable soil use practices. If they practice conservation agriculture, they should be paid… should be compensated. And the private sector stands to play an important role in this. Their collaboration will be critical, by paying carbon credits to the agriculture sector that in many cases the government cannot afford to pay”.
Turning to the matter of COP28—slated to take place from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai—he reflected that the issue of investment in agriculture, and specifically in carbon sequestration as a solution to climate impacts, will be at the top of the agenda.
Commitment for political action
Lal’s presentation struck a chord with the region’s agricultural authorities, as they all agreed on the need to prioritize actions and policies that place farmers at the center, in order to protect soil health and in turn the agricultural development of their countries, hand in hand with environmental sustainability.
Martha Carvajalino, the Deputy Minister of Rural Development of Colombia, reflected that, “Agricultural soil health should be prioritized in regional public policies. It is not simply a matter of providing funding for soil conservation in the fight against climate change. There must also be policies focusing on offering conservation incentives and on rewarding today’s small farmers, and indigenous and Afro-descendant communities for their levels of soil conservation. The local communities that still retain traditional practices are the communities with the healthiest agricultural soils. Soil is a resource on which life and the world’s future depend”.
Addressing Lal, Santiago Argüello, Mexico’s General Coordinator for Agriculture, reported that, “Last year, the Government of Mexico designed the national soil strategy for sustainable agriculture, precisely on your recommendation and with IICA’s support. It is now a reality. It has helped us to place greater value on this key asset for our agrifood sector and source of wealth for our producers. This is the correct path towards sustainable food production”.
Fernando Vargas, Costa Rica’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, explained that as a result of his country’s implementation of the soil law, “60% of its soil is protected and under conservation and 20% of its forests are in the hands of agricultural producers. Various countries are making a tremendous effort. However, the financial resources that would allow us to invest in the sale of carbon credits and provide farmers with a significant income are limited”.
Mike Flores, Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States Department of Agriculture, considered that “it is crucial to protect soils and invest in smart agriculture, given the benefits in terms of food and water safety and quality”. He added that “public and private sectors” play a fundamental role in “improving practices and overcoming obstacles with respect to carbon sequestration and the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions”.
“We must enact laws to preserve healthy soils and provide payment for ecosystem services to producers, most of whom lack access to regenerative agriculture technologies”, added César Vinicio Arreaga, Deputy Minister of Food and Nutritional Security of Guatemala.
“As the Ministry of Agriculture, we must be proactive in driving incentives and the structural change that agriculture requires”, said Paul Núñez, Deputy Minister of Productive Agricultural Development of Ecuador.
“We must place farmers front and center. They have the lead role in sustainable development in the Americas. In El Salvador, we are providing communities with technical support and assistance to overcome climate vulnerability and risks, as well as achieve soil regenerative agriculture, because we know perfectly well that they are the driving forces behind production”, stated Óscar Guardado, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock.
José Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture of Belize, remarked that the agriculture sector is in “a privileged position to generate legitimate income by fostering soil health, which is key, as well as carbon sequestration. In turn, José Alberto Sáenz, Director General of Agricultural Development and Agroecology of Peru, stressed the fact that, in order to tackle climate change, “States must provide social protection and support, especially to small-scale farmers, who are the most vulnerable to these scenarios” of floods, droughts and temperature changes, among others.
“Access to climate funding is a problem in Trinidad and Tobago. We do not benefit from all the resources available. And collaboration is key to making strides in smart agriculture. We want to achieve progress with respect to GHG inventories, analyze our climate change activities, and strike a balance in our mitigation strategies. We face difficulties due to our per capita income”, concluded the Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries of the Caribbean country, Avinash Singh.
Institutional Communication Division.