Titled the Living Soils initiative (Project Sols Vivants), the project aims to measure soil health, and ultimately, kickstart the regeneration of millions of hectares of degraded soils.
“Our Living Soils initiative aims to accelerate the adoption of conservation agriculture practices by farmers,” said Earthworm CEO Bastien Sachet. “It is bringing together retailers, brands and cooperatives to create systemic change when it comes to supply chain challenges.
“We are working with several brands, retailers and cooperatives in France, including Nestlé, Lidl, McCain, Cérélia and NORIAP Groupe, to measure soil health, then provide further support tailored to a farmer’s needs.”
The soil degradation crisis
The initiative responds to the soil crisis, which Earthworm says is as, if not more, important than the climate and above-ground biodiversity crises.
Soil health is crucial for a variety of reasons: soil simultaneously produces food, stores carbon, and purifies water.
As the not-for-profit World Wide Fund for Nature puts it, the health of soil is a primary concern to farmers and the global community whose livelihoods depend on well managed agriculture. Yet half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years.
“In addition to erosion, soil quality is affected by other aspects of agriculture. These impacts include compaction, loss of soil structure, nutrient degradation, and soil salinity. These are very real and at times severe issues,” WWF noted.
With a third of the world’s soil degraded, Earthworm is concerned that many countries will be left with infertile soil if nothing is done. The Living Soils initiative makes the initial step of measuring soil health, from which food companies and their supply chain players can then act.
How does the initiative work?
The Living Soils initiative acts as a soil health indicator, Earthworm’s CEO told FoodNavigator.
“Soil quality is the combined result of its physical, chemical and biological properties,” he explained. “The soil health indicator seeks to aggregate the assessments of these parameters, as well as obtaining a simple, inexpensive result indicator validated by research.”
It combines parameters such as organic matter content, clay, and soil structure. The end result is an A, B, C, D, E or F score for each plot, which gives an idea of the state of soil health.
The project is based on two key work pillars. The first is dedicated to supporting farmers who are willing to implement soil conservation practices but are lacking the technical support, Earthworm explained.
Pillar two focuses on developing new financial tools to accelerate farmers’ agricultural transition. “We believe that if we want to be able to bring change at a larger scale for the agricultural sector, and increase the number of farmers practicing responsible agriculture, we need to create innovative financial tools that can accelerate change by reducing the perceived risk associated to it.
“As conservation practices are storing carbon in soil, we are developing a methodology to economically value the ecosystem services generated by farmers’ agricultural practices that store carbon in the soil. This will allow for farmers to receive a complementary income for their agricultural practices.”
Earthworm expects this indicator to help deliver one million hectares transition to regenerative agriculture by 2025.
Nestlé, McCain and Lidl measure soil health
Food giant Nestlé is one of the first to back the Earthworm project. The Maggi-to-Nesquik maker sources potatoes, wheat and sugar from Northern France, with an equal focus on soil health and crops.
A pilot project financed by Nestlé is underway in what is regarded the leading arable region of France: the Santerre.
Brands need to know who the farmers are in their supply chain, as well as how healthy the soil is at their farms, Sachet stressed. “The Living Soils initiative is measuring these farmers’ soil health, so all subsequent support and incentives are tailored to their needs.”
Supermarket retailer Lidl has been working alongside Earthworm since 2019, explained Sachet, along with some of its main potato suppliers, on the development of regenerative agriculture and its valuation directly in the brand’s stores.
And frozen potato company McCain, the CEO continued, wants to deploy sustainable practices with the 900 farmers of the Hauts-de-France region who deliver to their factories. “They are working with the Living Soils initiative so that this transformation can be considered not only at the level of potato cultivation, but also at the scale of the rotation of the farm and in an approach shared with other industrialists in the area.”
‘Soil health is important for all in the supply chain’
The Living Soils’ private partners are not only financing the initiative, but are working alongside Earthworm in a ‘process of supply chain transformation’. “We engaged Nestlé’s and Lidl’s suppliers to reach the French farmers producing the raw materials used in their product,” the Earthworm CEO elaborated.
“This allowed us to begin work carried out by our field staff, with our partners, on improving their soil health. It was a bit different with McCain, as they were already directly in touch with their potato farmers, so our collaboration with them is through their agronomists and field technicians.”
The initiative is purposefully targeting both food manufacturers and supermarket retailers, because soil health is important for all in the supply chain.
“Everyone is concerned about the fertility and health of soil, from the retailers who sell agricultural products, to the food manufacturers who will process them.
“Measuring soil health is first and foremost an educational tool for the farmer, who can then start to improve soil health by changing practices according to their constraints.”
At the heart of the Living Soils project is a desire to bring different stakeholders together around crop rotation, Sachet added. Soil health is maintained or regenerated throughout the rotation. “One field will produce potatoes for Lidl one year, wheat for Nestlé the other.”
An important step towards regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture, the term used to describe a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems, offers solutions to soil management systems. And soil quality grading, according to Earthworm, is the ‘first step’.
“You need to know where you are starting from to make the right decision, like a doctor making a diagnosis before providing their patient a prescription. Farmers can experiment, adopt cover crops, reduce ploughing, lengthen their rotations, or a combination of several practices,” Sachet explained.
The Living Soils initiative focuses on support, he continued, because farmers often take a risk by changing their habits. They need financial and technical help, the CEO added.
“What is happening in our work here demonstrates how that help can be provided. Through our advice and follow-up visits, farmers can learn and share their experience to make the transition to a more soil-friendly agriculture.
“Over time they can see the evolution of the quality of soil structure.”