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Protecting agricultural soil: our most precious asset

The planet’s population is expected to rise to 9.5 billion by 2050. We believe that the key to feeding that many people is living, healthy, fertile soil. That’s why we’re working with our agricultural partners to promote sustainable, mixed agriculture. That includes agroecological practices that mirror natural processes, including intercropping with plant cover. Our aim is simple: to restore the natural fertility of agricultural land and, in doing so, produce eco-friendly plant-based food and combat climate change.

Breathing life back into the soil

SOIL. We walk on it every day. Sometimes we over-exploit it for farming or construction.  But few of us understand what a precious, complex ecosystem it really is. Soil is home to over a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity. Below are some facts and figures that show just how important soil is – and why we need to urgently preserve it:

  • Soil is a complex ecosystem that includes minerals, organic matter (of animal and plant origin), water, air, plants, living macro-organisms (such as roots and earthworms), bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms. These organisms break down organic matter and pollutants, produce nutrients for plants, fix nitrogen, and perform a host of other essential functions. 

  • Micro-organisms are responsible for over 90% of biogeochemical cycles such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Promoting the growth of these organisms is, therefore, absolutely vital.

  • 1 billion tonnes of soil are lost every year in Europe – the equivalent of 2 cm of soil covering the entire surface area of Belgium.

  • Soil holds a staggering 75% of all carbon on Earth. Most of the carbon that escapes from soil is emitted as CO2 through a process known as mineralisation. This process reduces the amount of organic matter in the soil, thereby decreasing its fertility. 

  • According to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), soil degradation poses a threat to over 40% of the planet’s landmass , and climate change is accelerating this process.

These changes can be reversed, but doing so takes time. The latest IPCC report, entitled “Climate Change and Land” , shows that sustainable land management could help us combat climate change. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that reducing tilling and maintaining permanent cover are two of the most effective ways to retain soil’s organic matter content and increase carbon storage. According to the “4 per 1,000” initiative, launched by the French government at the COP21 Paris climate summit in 2015 , boosting the amount of carbon stored in the soil by 0.4% each year would be enough to halt rising CO2 volumes in the atmosphere. 

How to proceed: Managing agricultural soil...

Soil health has a major bearing on agricultural production. Living, fertile, productive soil that is stable and well-structured, directly increases the resilience of agriculture to the consequences of climate change. 

The benefits of living soil can be summarised as follows:

  • Improved plant health and yields: organic matter promotes nutrient availability and absorption. Well-structured, porous soil allows more oxygen from the air to reach plant root systems.

  • Better water infiltration and retention: well-structured, porous, living soil can retain up to 20 times its mass in water.

  • Reduced loss of organic matter and greater physical protection: this stabilises the soil structure, making it more resistant to wind and water erosion.

  • Carbon capture and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Increased biodiversity: living soil provides an ecosystem that supports biodiversity.

  • Improved water quality: structured, porous soil containing more organic matter supports water infiltration and increased organic activity, thereby producing better filtered water.

In other words, an increase in the amount of carbon stored in Bonduelle Group’s soils, even modest, can have a major impact – on agricultural output, the availability of high-quality food for all, and efforts to combat climate change. 

...And transitioning to agroecology

We’re committed to transitioning to agroecology in our supply chain by striking the right balance between yield and soil health. To make that happen, we’re trialling innovative technologies, closely monitoring crops (from the selection of the right plot and variety, to the arrival of harvested crops in our factory), tracking soil profiles, and helping the farmers who supply us to develop more efficient practices that take better care of the soil. We’re targeting five key focus areas. 

As part of our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitments, we’ve set a group-wide target for our upstream farming operations by 2025: to use an appropriate combination of alternative cultivation techniques on 100% of our cultivated land . Doing so will enable us to make progress across all five areas of our agroecology policy.

Our resolve to act on these five key areas can be seen in the central role played by our field supervisors, who support the farmers who supply us out in the field, from seeding to harvest, monitoring every stage in minute detail. The first step in this collaborative process involves selecting the best plots for each vegetable variety, according to long crop rotation cycles . The aim is to minimise the risk of poor soil health and to maintain vital nutrients and organic matter while supporting biodiversity and optimising yields. Peas, for instance, are grown over a six-year rotation in Nord Picardy, north-eastern France.

We’re also helping to preserve natural resources through careful water and irrigation management practices. Here, our aim is to use just the right amount of water, and not a drop more. We encourage the farmers who supply us to employ precision irrigation systems to control how much water they use on their land:

Growing vegetables with alternative cultivation techniques

To meet our CSR target by 2025, we’re trialling and developing a range of alternative cultivation techniques and assessing their impact on our five key focus areas, and on agricultural soil health in particular. These alternative cultivation techniques have been deployed across Bonduelle Group production areas worldwide.

  • In particular, we’re using technologically advanced (camera-assisted) mechanical weed control methods instead of chemical herbicides.

Our agricultural machinery has also evolved, and we now use lighter and more powerful models with low-pressure tyres or caterpillar tracks to prevent soil compaction. That shift has also cut fuel consumption by 40%, thereby helping to reduce the carbon footprint of upstream farming. 

In Russia, where most of the vegetables we source come from our farms (over 10,000 hectares), we’ve rolled out strip-till across much of our operations. This method involves using special seed row preparation equipment and GPS-guided tractors, thereby limiting tilling to narrow strips, allowing the soil to become enriched with organic matter, stimulating biodiversity development, improving soil’s water retention capacity, and protecting against erosion.

  • Intercropping with plant cover plays a vital role in protecting soil by restoring its organic fertility and, more generally, in the transition to agroecology – as we’ve demonstrated through the experimental VEGESOL platform. The technique involves seeding one, or typically several, complementary species between two crop cycles (or potentially during crop growth). The resulting plant cover is not harvested; it is, instead destroyed and left on the land to protect and nourish the soil. Plant cover provides partial defence against weed growth. It also reduces surface run-off, allows for water to infiltrate into the soil where it remains, and protects land against erosion. Moreover, plant cover enriches the soil with nutrients and organic matter, gradually nursing it back to life. We actively encourage our farmers to use plant cover.  

  • The experimental VEGESOL platform compared conventional (tillage-based) systems with non-tillage systems on long rotations over an eight-year period. The experiment provided detailed evidence of the benefits of plant cover (including the possibility of substantially reducing the use of nitrogen fertiliser without affecting yield), and has given rise to nine scientific publications.

In 2019, efforts to reduce the use of phytosanitary products culminated in the European release of a new range of “pesticide-free” ready-to-eat salad products (lamb’s lettuce, baby spinach, iceberg lettuce and canned corn). The range will soon expand to include other fresh, canned and frozen foods. By 2025, Bonduelle will offer a complete range of products containing no pesticide residues.

We’re also developing plant cover programmes in other production areas as part of our ongoing effort to limit chemical residues in our products. In 2019, for instance, we ran large-scale trials in Hungary to raise awareness among farmers and promote the uptake of less chemical-intensive methods.

Are you aware of the Innova Terre network? 

Innova Terre is network set up by Bonduelle Group in Nord Picardie, north-eastern France, for farmers to exchange innovative practices and ideas around sustainable, mixed agriculture. 

 About the network

All of these innovative projects and initiatives are about promoting sustainable, mixed agriculture as a way to enhance soil health. They are fully in line with our commitment to be exemplary within the agricultural sector and to create a better future through plant-based food. Our ambition is to set the gold standard for the agroecological transition by developing a system based on functional biodiversity, where we let nature take its course. Because it is our firm belief that nature is our future.

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