Yet, compared to other natural resources like water and the air we breathe, soil is often overlooked.
To grow a resilient agricultural industry, soil must be treated with the same sense of preciousness.
The root of the problem
Globally, and within Australia, a large percentage of our soils are degraded.
The common enemies of soil are erosion, acidification, carbon loss, salt accumulation, and contamination, both naturally and at the hand of humankind.
While people like to believe money can’t buy happiness, it can go a long way to support a more secure agricultural network, and we all need that to survive.
Not enough financial investment is made to protect this finite resource, coming at the expense of farmers, investors and, in the end, the wider society.
The National Soil Strategy was formed in 2021, pumping $200 million into a 20-year plan to turn around soil health and the attitudes toward it.
This national strategy was long overdue. While it is a step in the right direction, many will also question if it is enough investment if we are serious about growing the Australian agricultural sector to $100 billion by 2030.
We need to dig deeper if real benefits are to be seen.
Growing investor interest and reaping the profits
A large body of research has demonstrated the benefits of farming soil stewardship practices in lifting soil health, productivity and resilience.
More broadly, these practices can support carbon sequestration, enhance water quality and support many other ecosystem services that we depend on.
At present, farmers are sometimes unrewarded for their investments in soil and support for these ecosystem services. That’s despite putting their own time, money and energy into making their land the best they can, in order to make the food on our dinner plates the best possible.
There is, however, a chance to use soil health as a drawcard for the growing cohort of environmentally conscious investors. These types of investors are looking beyond short-term profits.
Getting soil measured and managed
Investment in soil health requires clarity on the financial ramifications of soil-related risks and the financial returns from enhanced soil health.
While there is now a dedicated International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) and the disclosure of environmental performance information by corporations is becoming commonplace, there is a lack of guidance on how farmers can report on their soil impacts, risks and opportunities.
Given the lack of guidance, unsurprisingly, it is difficult to locate examples of soil information within the annual and sustainability reports of corporate agribusinesses.
As part of the ‘Rewarding soil stewardship’ program, our team has been supported by the Soil CRC and has worked with the Australian Accounting Standards Board (AASB), as well as engaging with corporate agribusinesses and their investors to rectify this gap.
Planting the seed for a theory in practice
The appreciation of soil by the corporate world is growing and there is an anticipation that soil will be increasingly recognised by agribusiness investors and banks.
For those not already doing so – and to reward those who are – a potential incentive to maintain healthy soil could come from agri-lenders. Agribusinesses reporting positive soil health might get a discount on their loan, or better interest rates.
The support for enhanced soil reporting is growing. To be successful, corporate soil reporting should focus on soil-related information that farmers are already capturing and monitoring. A practical approach will be to better integrate soil-health within existing sustainability reporting frameworks.
The most relevant soil information will be linked to other environmental reporting topics (such as water and carbon emissions) and to an agribusiness’s financial performance and position.
Simple is usually best, and when it comes to reporting soil health, the consensus has been just that.
The information should clearly communicate the soil health data and trends it follows, the efforts of agribusinesses to achieve that, and how well they’re doing compared with other agribusinesses.
In doing this, everyone wins. Consumers get better products, investors have more worthy causes to direct their capital towards, and at the heart of it all, farm resilience is supported.