Soil – the substance of life, the substance of transformation

Final speech at the closing panel of Global Soil Week: Soil. The Substance of Transformation, Berlin, 22 April 2015

Check against delivery!

Ladies and gentlemen,
Professor Töpfer,
Ms. Kariuki,

This afternoon, the "One Hectare" exhibition was opened at Gleisdreieck Park. A little more than one and a half hours have passed since then. This means that, based on average figures, another five hectares of soil in Germany have been sealed since.

Global figures are even far more alarming: Every year, land degradation affects some six million hectares worldwide. In total, 24 billion tons of fertile soil is lost every year. That is more than three tons for every person on Earth. This is happening as a result of surface sealing, soil compaction, contamination, salinity, erosion, and sheer overexploitation.

At the same time, we all know that food production needs to increase in order to ensure food and nutrition security for a growing world population. In the period up to 2050, it needs to increase by at least 60 per cent! How will we manage to achieve that, seeing that in many parts of Africa alone, yields are at risk of declining by a third over the next 15 years due to climate change? Seeing that harvests fail because there is no reliable rainy season anymore; and then when the rain does come, it is so heavy that it not only washes away the harvest (bad enough in itself) but actually the very soil – how will we manage to increase food production? You are the experts. You know that one hour of heavy rain can wash away soil that took thousands of years to form.

So it is vital that we look at the ground we are standing on – quite literally – and do everything we can to protect humanity's most important means of production, or save it where that is still possible. For a long time, this problem was completely neglected. So I am very pleased that you, Professor Töpfer, have organized this conference here in Berlin. And I am even more grateful that, together with IASS and other partners, you have been working so persistently to make us in Germany, and worldwide, realize that soil is not a resource that can be renewed ad infinitum.

Global Soil Week is being held for the third time now, drawing 550 participants from 78 countries – experts, policymakers, practitioners. It has become a successful platform that provides important impetus to urgently needed change.

Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Töpfer, The BMZ has certainly understood the message. Germany is doing a lot to make sure that humankind will not lose the very ground from under their feet. Our main focus is on countries that are particularly affected by land erosion. Our special initiative "One World – No Hunger" is focusing, in a first step, on Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India, and Kenya. We are using innovative approaches to help these countries to use resources sparingly, protect soils, and restore soil fertility so that lost land can be farmed again.

Such innovations can be very simple. For instance, in Kenya we support farmers in liming their land. This can help increase yields by up to 30 per cent. We also show farmers how to use soil analyses to determine the right amount of fertilizer. This can help smallholders reduce costs and simultaneously increase production.

In India, we have been supporting the government, for example, in improving its Soil Health Cards. Earlier in our bilateral cooperation with India, we provided advice to people in the State of Maharashtra on how to better use their natural resources.

  • They built retention dams and terraces,
  • planted grass, trees and hedges to protect the topsoil,
  • and they started to grow a greater variety of crops.

All these things together have made the land more fertile again. The result is very clear and encouraging:

  • cereal yields have increased fourfold,
  • there are four times as many jobs,
  • a thicker vegetation cover,
  • clean drinking water for all,
  • and, not least, empowered women who are generating their own incomes.

In Ethiopia, we are supporting integrated soil fertility methods, for instance improved crop rotation and the use of compost. Agroforestry farming, for example, is helping to achieve several things at once:

  • increased carbon storage in land and biomass,
  • protection of land against erosion, and
  • increase of tree and field crop yields.

We want to make use of these synergies between various agricultural techniques. But the legal environment is also important for encouraging investment in land. In Burkina Faso, we are providing advice to our partners on the implementation of land reform. When farmers know that the land they are using cannot be taken away from them, they are willing to invest in preserving its fertility. In particular, we are supporting women, who often have no land rights. As we all know, gender equality is one of the most effective innovations against hunger.
In all these efforts, we are working closely with academia and international agricultural research centers, and particularly with IASS. Through their accompanying research, they are supporting our global program in areas where we pursue joint activities with our partner institutions.

Germany's vision is: A world without hunger is possible. Helping to eradicate hunger and malnutrition worldwide by 2030, and helping to protect natural resources in rural areas and to make sure that they are used sustainably – these are the two major goals of the BMZ's special One World – No Hunger initiative, which we are pursuing with massive funding (1.4 billion euros this year alone).

Germany will use its G7 presidency to encourage other partners to join the effort, because a world without hunger is not some distant dream. It would be possible today. This means that we have an obligation to make this vision come true. Just like in many other areas, it is becoming more and more evident in this field that all poverty reduction efforts will be in vain if development is achieved at the expense of the environment. So in the long term, wise soil protection policies are crucial to the survival of humankind.

Intact soil is not only a prerequisite for food security. Without intact soil, we will also lose the battle against climate change. As you all know, carbon is not only stored in trees but also in land. After the world's oceans, soil is the largest carbon sink of our planet. Almost one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by agriculture, forestry and land use. In other words, agriculture is a major contributor to global warming. To date, 55 billion metric tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere just as a result of land degradation. And the advance of climate change and the increasing loss of soil fertility are increasingly pushing agricultural activity to new areas, with more and more forests being cut down. It is a vicious circle, we have to break.

So it is very appropriate that the tremendous importance of soil protection is reflected in the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted by the UN this fall. Goal 15 reads: "Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems (...) and halt and reverse land degradation (...)." Germany believes that negotiations on the set of SDGs should not be reopened – which also means that we want to firmly establish soil protection as part of the future agenda for sustainable development.

The SDGs are calling particularly on us in the industrialized countries to do our part. This is perfectly appropriate, because our countries are not only part of the solution but also part of the problem. 60 per cent of the land area we Europeans use for our consumption is outside Europe. In other words, we are using more than we have. We are virtual soil importers. The production of agricultural goods and consumer goods consumed in Germany requires almost 80 million hectares of land – more than twice our own land area.

Professor Töpfer pointed out that this can have massive impacts on other people. The land footprint we are leaving in the places where things are being produced for us often means that this land is no longer available for anyone else. People in developing countries are also losing their livelihoods through land grabbing and resettlements. Professor Töpfer, your Institute published a soil atlas where we can read that each EU citizen uses an average of 1.3 hectares of land a year – more than the one hectare we can see over at Gleisdreieck Park, and six times more than a Bangladeshi.

In the long term, equitable and sustainable development will only be possible on land and soils that are used equitably and sustainably. We all have to do our share – experts and policymakers, businesspeople, and each and every one of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, You may know the wise words from ancient Sanskrit scripture written 3500 years ago: "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." We do not want to let that happen – we must not let that happen! That is why we are here, and that is what we will fight together for the ground we are standing on.

BMZ glossary

Close window


Share page