Why at Bonduelle do we want to protect soil biodiversity ?
In an interview, Thierry Caquet, ecologist and Scientific Director for the Environment at INRAE (France) explains the links between human activities, the degradation of biodiversity and the multiplication of infectious diseases of animal origin such as Covid-19. The health crisis has once again revealed man’s dependence on natural ecosystems and the urgent need to protect them.
This is the whole meaning of the farming model towards which we are tending. To feed more than 9 billion people in 2050, we must increase agricultural yields. This is only possible by developing the services provided by nature, by protecting the diversity of life it harbours, particularly in cultivated soils.
I – The extraordinary organisation of soil biodiversity
The soil is home to an extraordinarily varied life – more than a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity – whose activity is essential for agricultural production and environmental protection.
It is a relatively unknown society because it is invisible, and yet it is the one that offers the highest density of species in nature. The soil is home to thousands of organisms which, by continuously interacting under our feet, contribute to the global cycles that make life possible.
A classification by size of the organisms allows a better understanding of this ecosystem. To put it simply, microorganisms, algae and fungi can be distinguished from the different families of animals by their size, which is inversely proportional to the size of their population: the micro-, meso-, macro- and megafauna.
Interactions between organisms are also numerous. The first level of soil life is also the most familiar: plant photosynthesis. Using energy from the sun, plants convert carbon dioxide from the air, as well as the water absorbed by their roots, into usable energy (carbohydrates). During this process plants release oxygen.
When plants wilt, the underground society is activated. The majority of living soil organisms have the function of transforming dead plants into organic matter. Other members of this ecosystem, mainly herbivorous insects and predators, regulate these populations.
The life of all these living things, through their activity in the earth, creates the porosity necessary for plant root growth and the infiltration of air and water into the soil.
Cultivated plants and soil organisms provide a mutual service: the plant synthesizes the organic and chemical compounds necessary for the life of the soil’s inhabitants, which, in turn, work to optimize plant growth and health.
Obviously, the biodiversity of each soil is unique because it depends on the biodiversity of the environment of which it is a part. In agriculture it is therefore necessary to take an interest in the biodiversity of the territory surrounding each crop.
II – Soil biodiversity is vital for the environment and people
On a global scale, soils are the second largest source of carbon sequestration after the oceans. Carbon circulates between plants, the atmosphere and the soil. Soils therefore play an essential role in regulating the planet’s climate. They also play a role in the water cycle because they make water drinkable.
At the level of human activities, agriculture depends on the ecological services provided by soils. They can be presented into 4 categories (from: Kibblewhite et al. (2008)), all of which have impacts on crop yields and health:
- Carbon transformation: Soils capture carbon from the photosynthesis reaction of plants and transform it into organic matter.
- Nutrient recycling: Organic matter promotes nutrient availability and uptake by crop plants.
- Regulation of populations of natural crop stressors: Through its biodiversity, a living soil contributes to the enrichment of the biodiversity of its entire ecosystem, allowing the natural regulation of pests, parasites and diseases.
- Maintenance of soil structure: Soil organic matter reinforces the soil’s resistance to erosion and provides better water infiltration and retention.
Soil biodiversity and agricultural yields are therefore linked: soil fertility and its ability to fulfil its key ecological functions depend to a large extent on the biodiversity it contains. Protecting living soils is an essential component of future food sufficiency, as it increases the agricultural yields needed to feed 9 billion people tomorrow without altering ecosystems.
This is the whole point of the alternative agricultural practices set up by our partner farmers and the research projects we are developing with stakeholders in our operating countries.
III – How bonduelle works to promote soil biodiversity
Our mission as a responsible agro-industrial company is threefold: to be able to feed a growing population in a qualitative manner, to accompany our farming partners in their transition and to do everything possible to play our part in preserving the environment, since it is in nature, our main resource, that the solutions are to be found to a large extent.
We work in an open and inclusive way in all our areas and our sustainable and diversified agriculture is based on the diversity of the actors and terroirs that make up our agricultural model.
At Bonduelle we grow more than 500 different varieties of vegetables, some of which naturally have recognized environmental advantages, such as peas:
How peas create natural fertiliser
Beyond what we already are, we want to support the transition of our farming partners towards ever more sustainable practices. We share our knowledge of cultivated plants and seek with them the best practices adapted to each crop.
Our goal by 2025: 100% of the land cultivated for Bonduelle will make it possible, through an appropriate combination of alternative cultivation techniques, to make progress on the following issues:
- Preservation of biodiversity
- Decrease in chemical inputs
- Water conservation
- Soil protection
- Lower carbon footprint
Some alternative cultivation techniques can meet several of these challenges, such as plant cover.
We encourage soil cover between two crops because bare soil is the most senseless waste.
Not only does bare soil promote erosion, water evaporation and colonization of undesirable plants, thus fatally damaging its biodiversity and structure, but it also cannot play its key role as a carbon collector, which is so crucial in the face of the climate challenges we are facing!
Because the more we cover the soil with plants, the richer it will be in organic matter and therefore in carbon.
Each year, 30% of the CO2 emitted by human activities are captured by plants in the natural process of photosynthesis (Source: www.4p1000.org ). In addition to improving air quality, the benefits of the phenomenon do not stop there: the decomposition of plants into organic matter loaded with carbon retains water, nitrogen and phosphorus essential to plant growth and therefore to our diet. Once again, protecting nature provides us with the most vital services
Our progresses are already visible. We have measured the spread of our alternative farming practices on the 120,000 hectares we represent: 35% of cultivated areas have plant cover.
These efforts have also made it possible to offer ranges of products that are without residue from pesticides .
And for tomorrow we are developing partnerships and innovative projects in favour of a sustainable agricultural transition.
As an agro-industrial player in the plant sector, our credo “La nature, notre futur” takes on its full meaning and is widely shared with our farming partners, whose soils are their most precious capital. This sharing of meaning is a major asset for the successful completion of our roadmap committed to soil biodiversity!
Erosion and pollution are depleting soil fertility at a worrying rate of 24 billion tons per year (the weight of the Titanic every 10 minutes). Consequences: Our food is depleted of nutrients and farm productivity declines with each generation of crops.
If we do not commit to practices that bring our soils back to life, we will pay the costs in the long run. The resilience of farmers, the nutritional richness of food, clean water and the robustness of our natural ecosystems are at stake.
To meet these challenges, our sustainable and diversified agriculture calls for a twofold paradigm shift:
- a long-term approach to improve local biodiversity season after season, by reinventing ways of doing things and developing natural means of prevention as much as possible,
- an inclusive and open agriculture, with knowledge and technology, and based on the common sense of farmers who know the ecosystem of their own fields better than anyone else, because our food comes from the People who work the land. The health crisis has reminded us of their major societal role.