19 April 2021

Martina (FAO): “Produce better, consuming less. Agriculture must change model”

Maurizio Martina FAO Agricoltura

The FAO Deputy Director to Re Soil Foundation: “Sustainable land management is a turning point to ensure agricultural production and food sovereignty. I hope that the EU will soon change the directive on soils”

by Emanuele Isonio


“I hope that in the European Union we will soon have the conditions in place to finalise the Soil Directive. In the meantime, the steps taken so far by the Mission Soil and the strategies on biodiversity and Farm to Fork are going in the right direction. It is important that Europe sets out these strategies. Obviously it is even more important that it works consistently on actions and decisions able to give them operational substance”. Maurizio Martina, former Minister of Agriculture and Secretary of the Democratic Party, since January has opened a new phase of his life. The director of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Qu Dongyu has appointed him as Special Advisor and Deputy Director-General. We interviewed him in the UN body office, while the organisation of the upcoming Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity is progressing.

Mr. Martina, why did FAO’s Global Soil Partnership decide to organize this event?

Soils are widely recognized as one of the most important reservoirs of global biodiversity. However, the loss of this biodiversity is considered a major threat in many regions of the world. Despite tremendous scientific progress to date, the protection and monitoring of soil resources at national and global levels face enormous challenges, resulting in problems with the design and implementation of effective policies on the ground.

The Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity (GSOBI21) will bring together experts from around the world. They will discuss the state of global soil biodiversity, trends and opportunities to be seized, based on the best scientific evidence available to date. The event will provide a platform for countries, scientific communities, local communities, institutions and businesses to discuss and share examples of integrated land use planning and soil management, as well as solutions to restore soil ecosystem services and ensure equitable and environmentally sound approaches.

Quali sono i fattori principali di perdita della biodiversità? FONTE: Encyclopedia Britannica.

SOURCE: Encyclopedia Britannica.

The data on soil health are alarming. Is there an underestimation of the problem compared to other environmental issues?

The role of the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) along with other organizations has been crucial in contributing to the knowledge, use, conservation and sustainable management of this precious natural capital: soils. Today, the key role played by soils in providing food and other essential ecosystem services that enable life on earth is widely recognized. Despite this, however, one third of our soils worldwide show some level of degradation, resulting in a loss of their health and functioning.

In addition, there are some glaring gaps in the monitoring of soil health and degradation at national, regional, and global scales. It is now a matter of filling these gaps through the creation and promotion of national and regional soil information systems, the creation of global maps on different soil properties, and the creation of networks to strengthen soil monitoring and provide useful tools for decision makers on its sustainable management.

Soil protection also has to do with food production and food sovereignty. How does FAO believe soil and its health should be protected?

The Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management are the main tool and driving force for our work and that of the Global Soil Patnership. They provide general technical and policy recommendations on sustainable soil management based on generally accepted and science-based principles to promote sustainable management and provide concrete guidance to all stakeholders on how to translate these principles into practice, whether in agriculture, pastoralism, forestry or more general natural resource management.

Implementing guidelines at the national level is one of the most effective ways to ensure sustainable management and soil health. A successful example of the implementation of this tool is an FAO project in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Malawi, funded by the German government and focused on the adoption of sustainable soil management practices to improve the nutritional quality of local food products. The International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizers is another important tool developed by FAO to ensure sustainable soil management by all stakeholders involved in this process.

Which strategies is FAO pursuing and do you personally consider more effective and necessary?

FAO, through its Global Soil Partnership, is pursuing better governance and more sustainable management of soil resources: it has proven to be the tipping point. It is an integrated, cost-effective solution that improves crop productivity while preserving soil health and integrates local and indigenous knowledge with advanced technologies for data collection, analysis and interpretation.

The Global Soil Parnership recently launched the Sustainable Soil Management Assessment Protocol, which aims to provide a framework, based on a set of indicators, for government officials, NGOs, and other parties involved in development projects to determine whether implemented soil management practices are truly sustainable and in line with recommendations.

Gli indicatori selezionati dalla Global Soil Partnership della FAO per pianificare una gestione sostenibile dei terreni. FONTE: FAO.

Indicators selected by FAO’s Global Soil Partnership for planning sustainable land management. SOURCE: FAO.

Moreover the RECSOIL (Recarbonization of Global Soils) initiative is the most effective and innovative tool that can sequester carbon in soils with this potential and improve their health. With this tool, four challenges can be addressed: re-sequestering the CO2 released into the atmosphere, while helping to improve food security and farm income, reducing poverty and malnutrition, and finally building soil resilience to extreme weather events and pandemics.

Climate change is substantially altering biodiversity and productive capacity everywhere. Does FAO believe that a global soil-climate strategy is possible?

It is not only possible. It is necessary! I hope that what has been said so far also demonstrates our commitment on this front.

We have already mentioned the steps taken by the EU. But national actions must be added. Let’s think about Italy: do you think our country has an adequate approach to tackle the issue of soil health?

No country can be satisfied with what it has done. Italy must be increasingly aware of the delicacy of its territorial context and be consequent in terms of choices. This work must be carried out by institutions, but it concerns everyone. I hope that in our country, too, there will be a stronger awareness of the urgency of this necessary change.

Undoubtedly, the agricultural sector represents a crucial juncture for any hope of addressing the issue effectively. How can agro-industry be convinced to abandon intensive, chemical-intensive agriculture?

I think that all the players in the agricultural and food experiences are now called upon to make a leap in quality and model. “Producing better while consuming less” is possible. When we measure up to this challenge, it is possible to combine sustainability and competitiveness. There are a lot of experiences that show us this every day more than many words.