Shifting the Paradigm: How Global Ecosystem Health and Local Growing are Connected.

By Deborah Long

Sustainable Development Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

As a complex Sustainable Development Goal to address, SDG15 looks at ecological degradation and the impact it is having on biodiversity and land, soil and ecosystem health. Success in protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems need actions to be locally based, locally driven and nationally supported. And this is the problem we face today: this locally based, nationally supported model is poorly served by today’s economic models of sustained growth. Today’s sustained growth system is just not up to the job.

GROW’s approach looks at two key aspects that we need to tackle in order to progress towards this SDG:

1. soil health and effective soil management

2. ecologically and socially sensitive land management.

Soil management

What is the issue?

Upon this handful of soil, our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it. Sanskit text.

© GROW Observatory

The world’s soil are under threat. Exhausted and degraded by decades of overgrazing and over tilling, the use of quick fix fertilisers and over use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. The UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation estimates that 33% of global soils are degraded. The importance of soil health is only underlined by another FAO statistic that 90% of our food comes from the soil (FAO). Degraded soil health really does have the capacity to take humanity with it.

Following on from the UN International Year of Soils in 2015, which focused on raising awareness of the importance of soil and soil health, the Global Soil Partnership identified a number of actions to meet 6 key identified targets:

One of GROW’s aims is to support the Global Soil Partnership in working towards these targets.

So how do we get there?

The World Soil Charter (revised 2014) has the overriding goal to increase the area under sustainable soil management and the area of soils rehabilitated or restored. It lists actions for individuals and the private sector, for national governments and for international organisations. Of these GROW is helping individuals to manage soil sustainably and ensure their produce comes from sustainably managed soil and aiming to help government incorporate sustainable soil and land management principles into national policy.

Land management

What is the issue?

Cultivation is a key driver of land management. It does not happen in an environmentally neutral bubble: it is a part of much larger biological cycles. 48% of land in Europe is used for agricultural purposes. Sustainable production strategies that also deliver fully functioning ecosystems is therefore key to success of this SDG. The aim of cultivation should be to produce enough food to meet global demand and protect the environment at the same time. The question is, can land management for agriculture be sustainable in economic terms as well as social and environmental terms?

Socially and environmentally successful land use and land management requires access to land and landowners willing to embrace different ways of production. It requires an ability to nurture the land and soil and grow sustainably. It requires access to knowledge and tools as well as support for community led production and supply. A key and underused resource is community production with its local reinvestment in land, soil and biodiversity. This leads to environmental sustainability if only because no one wants their own back yard to be polluted. This requires a paradigm shift.

© D Long

So how do we get there?

There are, at least, 6 key elements for success in building sustainable production, alongside protection and restoration of ecosystems on land. The key to success is the creation of fully functioning and flourishing ecosystems that are the result of social structures able to both address a damaged and polluted environment and include an economic and political set of solutions.

Element 1: Networks. Social benefits accrue with ecological improvements. In order to build these benefits, a key requisite is support and buy in from a wide range of actors including state agencies, environmental and social justice NGOs, local farmers and citizens. Take the ecovida network in Brazil, for example, which connects 15,000 family farms with their wider communities. Enhanced by peer reviewed and controlled system of organic certification, the Association of Participatory Certification, this process of certification fosters ongoing exchange of cultivation techniques and feedback on efficacy amongst growers and experts.

Element 2: Appropriate geographic scales. Working in small, locally relevant geographic areas, allows all parties to be involved from producers to consumers and to ngos and government agencies. This seals the social component and integrates ecological with social and technological elements.

Element 3: Distribution. Distribution is a major struggle for unconventional, organic and small-scale growers and farmers today. Channels that run from field to fork are difficult to find and maintain. Creating and supporting a system that helps local small scale farmers become even more ecologically sound through coordinating transport of goods, while maintaining a fair price is a crucial part of environmental stewardship.

Element 4: Support & subsidies. Access to training and knowledge and to networks that foster social and environmental responsibility as well as subsidies for unconventional producers are vital. These supports could also include enticements to build and maintain effective and efficient distribution networks for small scale, unconventional growers

Element 5: Political will. This comes from leaders as well as consumers. Supporting environmental responsibility means taking the time to find out who is doing what and making active consumer choices. Participating in environmental sustainability means studying it and getting involved.

Element 6: Building on today’s momentum. The current movement of environmental awareness and people’s interest in finding answers to climate change and ecological degradation is unprecedented and therefore is very precious and must not be squandered. Today’s solutions will have profound and lasting consequences for future generations. They need to be good ones.

In Europe today, there are a number of opportunities for GROW to be able to contribute to the shift required. GROW is laying the foundations of a structure that organises people in Europe around participatory governance in local food production, soil management and conservation, improved land management and local land ownerships and use.

A recent, but past, opportunity was the Soil Directive (2010): was it a missed trick? Should the focus not have been on large scale mapping but on a simpler community led approach with community level actions on community growing and community land ownership? While this would achieve the same end result of better soil management and soil conservation, it uses a different approach and takes account of communities bringing a focus back onto local food resilience locally sourced, healthy food, biodiversity and environmental resilience.

The benefits of this approach are clear: local growing communities tend to be highly productive and offer a number of additional benefits to large scale, centralised, commercial food production: decreased food miles, increased food resilience, opportunities for local employment and small, locally based business opportunities, local food networks, soil management and increased biodiversity. This type of change could provide the solution of a number of significant problems in the EU.

However, key drivers for change are missing. Or are they? The realignment of the Common Agricultural Policy and its payment system could be used to drive this change. If GROW is demonstrating the case that shifting subsides to small-scale growers generates the wide range of solutions above, this would be not only a catalyst for change to EU policy, but would also be creating the data to monitor and audit in order to ensure subsidies are being used wisely and going to the right people.

In the longer term, an EC Community Food Production Directive may be part of the answer. Using local community voices to influence policy and redirect fiscal and legislative incentives to support small scale growing would be a significant achievement for the longer term.

© D Long

This is GROW’s aim: to be a catalyst to make the shift to community growing. By building a mechanism for individuals and small communities to access subsides to grow and sell food locally, the result is increased support for local growing, highly productive communities and sustainably managed land and soil.

This step provides progress towards some significant and pressing environmental issues across Europe and provides progress towards SDG 15, as well as SDG 2.

By working with local communities and grower networks in 10 GROW Places across Europe, GROW is demonstrating how change in land and soil management practices, resulting in the production of sustainably produced food, can contribute progress towards the protection, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. GROW is demonstrating what the catalyst for change looks like: driven by local communities, sustainably managing local land for healthy food, healthy soils and healthy ecosystems.