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The International Terrain of Soil Biodiversity Governance: Challenges and Opportunities


Springtail. Wikimedia Commons License.


In the era of the human-induced, sixth great mass extinction, cries for conserving biodiversity are rising. These cries have led to initiatives on the international level in order to govern biodiversity, most famously the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) established in 1993. However, a quarter of the world’s biodiversity is literally underground, covered, largely invisible and therefore easily overlooked. It is the biodiversity - including plants, insects, vertebrates, 300 million tons of nematodes, and fungi - that lies in soils. Soil biodiversity is crucial for the functioning of ecosystems, provides ecosystem services and is a central element of soil health overall. Healthy soil, in turn, is the basis for qualitative and long-term agricultural production and is a major carbon sink. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) explains the relationship between soil health and agriculture in its 2020 Our Common Ground Report.


Soil functions (FAO 2015)


Soil biodiversity is seriously threatened, nearly globally (see map below), by a number of drivers. These include direct drivers such as land use change from deforestation or urbanisation and unsustainable land management practices such as intensive agriculture. Indirect drivers to soil biodiversity loss are demography, such as a rise in food demand from population growth and increasing wealth, economic factors like trade forces, and sociopolitics which includes the consumption choices (FAO 2020, 198-237).


Global map of potential threats to soil biodiversity (Origiazzi et al. 2016)


Despite the importance of soil biodiversity and the seriousness of threats it faces, “there is an international soil policy vacuum”. What are the biggest challenges the institutional governance of soil biodiversity faces? One of the challenges is the nature of the soil biodiversity problem as a local-accumulative problem. Another challenge is that one of the main bodies engaged in advancing soil biodiversity, the FAO, faces depth and participation dilemmas. I will outline these challenges and illustrate how the FAO in collaboration with other organisations operates in order to nonetheless advance the cause of soil biodiversity, namely through orchestration. This orchestration is actually the best option for established institutions to enhance soil biodiversity, and hopefully inspire more rigid action on local levels.


"There is an international soil policy vacuum." Ronald Amundson

The problem with the problem: Why governing soil biodiversity internationally is so hard


Governing soil biodiversity is complicated because of a number of characteristics of the problem of soil biodiversity loss. Firstly, soil biodiversity loss is interlinked with various other processes within and beyond soil. In that way it makes sense if soil biodiversity does not form a specific overarching target in international governance, but that grouping it under soil in general would be preferred. However, even soil in general has largely been overlooked in international policy-making.


The underappreciation of soils, both in policy and public understanding, is linked to a second problem characteristic. For a long time, there has been a lack of knowledge about processes in the soil and the role of soil life for those processes. Even compared to other environmental media, soils have been particularly poorly understood, because humans care way less about things they do not see. The FAO repeatedly referred to the huge knowledge gap on soil biodiversity, dedicating a whole symposium to filling them in April this year. And indeed, the knowledge gap is closing. Mercedes Muñoz working on land health projects with the IUCN emphasises that tremendous scientific work on soils has come up in the last decade and a lack of knowledge is therefore not a reason for non-action anymore. However, even with more knowledge about soil life, its international governance is still complicated by a number of further factors.


Soil biodiversity loss and soil degradation in general, like many environmental problems, are wicked problems. Wicked problems are problems with a range of definitions and possible solutions, they lack a global or central authority, have no clear stopping point but are urgent. However, other wicked problems, like climate change, have been addressed in more institutionalised ways.


Soil biodiversity loss is a local-accumulative environmental problem, and those are generally harder to govern internationally. The nature of local-accumulative problems has been outlined by O’Neill as including following points: 1) They “occur within national borders but have cumulative global effects”, 2) “they have been harder to define explicitly as international environmental issues, and have, therefore, been less often addressed by formal treaty arrangements”, but 3) “have been more easily addressed in non-state governance arenas, or through international economic organizations such as the World Bank”. 4) State sovereignty concerns make nations less tolerant of outside interference for managing these resources. This could be especially true for soil, as soil is so directly linked to territory. Lastly, 5), local-accumulative environmental problems are particularly “complex and multi-scalar”, impacting groups and local institutions that are marginal in the international arena. Addressing such local-accumulative wicked environmental problems relies on actions at the local and national scale. The cumulative impact of those actions are likely to initially only pay off little in the larger picture, but will make a significant difference after tipping points have been crossed. However, according to Amundson, the success of actions by local groups or institutions is supported by larger scale organization.


"Transdisciplinary approaches could assist policy processes through the development of a strong soil narrative that can re-politicise soils, instigate lasting soil policies and ultimately lead to societies' sustainable soil use and management." Mariana Gonzalez Lago, Roel Plant and Brent Jacobs

In order to enhance coordinated international action, some push for framing soil and soil biodiversity loss as a global problem. Lago, Plant and Jacops call for the “development of a strong soil narrative that can re-politicise soils, instigate lasting soil policies and ultimately lead to societies' sustainable soil use and management”. The CBD is an example of how local accumulative problems, through framing, can be tackled at a global level. O’Neill explains how an understanding of biodiversity as important beyond the state was successfully pushed by the conservation biology community, while the argument of the huge potential economic value in biodiversity conservation brought more actors on board. Calling on the economic value of soil biodiversity, especially in relation to agricultural production, can be one important strategy for showing policy makers the importance of soils. Lago, Plant and Jacobs instead suggest framing the problem of soil degradation and loss using the term soil security. Amundson, regards the “global soilscape” more broadly as a global resource commons. Governing soil biodiversity loss globally is hard, to a large part because of the characteristics of the problem. But, parallel to a movement of framing soil biodiversity as a global or at least international problem, there is a growing number of actors engaged in advancing the cause of soil biodiversity on the international level.


Diversity, in-breeding, cross-pollination: International actors and initiatives around soil biodiversity

Although there is not one global formal agreement on soil biodiversity (yet), there are numerous international organisations and initiatives - with various degrees of support from states - that have picked up or formed around the issue of soil and its biodiversity more directly. A selection of those actors and their networks are mapped below. The arrows indicate membership or affiliation. The network-map is non-exhaustive. It does, for example, not portray all the states involved in the respective institutions. Furthermore, for simplicity, it ignores the agricultural trade regime which also has a significant, though indirect influence on soil biodiversity. Nonetheless, the map illustrates some interesting points about the landscape of actors involved in pushing for soil biodiversity in the international agenda.


Diversity. O’Neill examines five main types of actors in international environmental politics: nation states, the global environment movement, the corporate sector, expert groups and international organisations. Except that in the map above conventions, international partnerships and intergovernmental organisations have been listed separately from international organisations, also in involvement in soil biodiversity the same diversity of actors are present. However, the above map is biased towards European states.


In-breeding. Digging deeper on initiatives on soil in general and soil biodiversity in particular, a fascinating leading role by the FAO is observed. Under the FAO, the Global Soil Partnership and its respective regional chapters were formed on the World Soils Day in 2015. The Global Soil Partnership has Soil Biodiversity as its main pillar. In collaboration with the CBD and the European Commission, amongst others, the FAO launched the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative. This creation of additional actors to advance soil biodiversity by the leading institutions is a sort of in-breeding.


Cross-pollination. Although the FAO is taking a leading role, it is first of all a body made up of country members, and secondly collaborates across actors for its initiatives. It is these collaborations for the creation and sponsoring of new bodies, as well as the interlinked membership and support structures that lead to a kind of cross-pollination of international organisations, states and other actors for soil biodiversity.


FAO for soil biodiversity: The depth-participation dilemma


The FAO’s leading role in the international discourse on soil biodiversity sticks out. How can we explain the FAO’s engagement for soil biodiversity, and its linkages with other regimes? What are the challenges and opportunities of FAO’s design for advancing soil biodiversity?


The FAO’s mandate “is to improve nutrition, increase agricultural productivity, raise the standard of living in rural populations and contribute to global economic growth.” This broad mandate and the FAO’s involvement in a wide range of topics can be explained by characterizing the FAO as a functional organization. Functional organizations, according to Hall, seek pragmatic legitimacy. They try to maximise their relevance and financing by broadening their constituency. They therefore bandwagon often, meaning they engage with regimes and other international organisations that are not necessarily directly linked to their mandate. The FAO’s engagement in a large range of topics and activities brings about several challenges, but also opportunities, largely summed up by the depth-participation dilemma.


Let’s start with the challenges. By having a broad mandate, engaging in many topics and collaborating with a range of institutions, as well as attracting widespread participation, the FAO supports projects and discourses that may be conflicting. For instance, in some ways it promotes biodiversity-harming intensive agriculture. The FAO thus falls into the trap of undermining itself, lowering its legitimacy. Furthermore, in order to please its diverse constituency, the FAO is less likely to promote more legally binding action for soil biodiversity conservation as this would significantly constrain some of its members.


On the other hand, the set-up of the FAO also creates opportunities. Its broad scope encourages widespread participation and thus funding. Nearly all states are members of the FAO. Secondly, because it has such a broad mandate and funding sources, it can allow itself to be involved in initiatives to enhance seemingly niche-initiatives such as the ones for soil biodiversity through an interdisciplinary approach. By engaging with other organisations, the FAO can give a niche topic more power. Furthermore, these collaborations help organizations to circumvent principal-agent relationships and shape state behaviour.


Listen to the full discussion on the challenges and opportunities of the FAO to tackle specific issues such as soil biodiversity loss held by my colleagues Camille François, Nicolle Renion and me.





Orchestrating soil biodiversity


Given the challenges of soil biodiversity governance arising from the nature of the environmental problem, and the challenges and opportunities of FAO’s set-up, how can the FAO still be effective in advancing the cause of soil biodiversity? The FAO’s approach to governing soil biodiversity internationally is best described by the concept of orchestration outlined by Bäckstrand and Kuyper, and Abbott and Snidal. Orchestration is a soft power approach to international government. The governor acts as an orchestrator by providing ideational and material support to intermediaries. These intermediaries can be other international organisations, local governments or businesses for instance. The intermediaries then mobilize “targets” - states, but also firms and consumers - to change their behaviour or policies. Mobilized nations are in turn more likely to push for a governance issue in the international organisations they are part of, leading to upward spiralling effects. Orchestration relies on institutions’ ability to shape knowledge and “fix meanings in the social world”. Orchestration therefore has the power to influence states indirectly, without relying on formally binding agreements. This gives the international organisations more flexibility and independence.


There are many examples of how the FAO, often in close collaboration with the CBD, engages in orchestration. Most initial actions for soil biodiversity conservation consisted of increasing the knowledge on soil biodiversity, supported by the creation of the scientific expert bodies of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative and the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils. The first is producing a yearly report on the State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity, while the latter is aimed at providing scientific and technical advice. These scientific resources are crucial for more action, as already Amundson outlined the importance of more systematic soil management planning and data sharing on existing conditions, existing soil management practices, and systematic monitoring. The World Soil Charter and the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management, each also promoted at the Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity, are further examples of ideational resources offered by the FAO. Furthermore, the FAO’s actions are aimed at increasing public awareness of soils by calling 2015 the International Year of Soils or creating children's books on soils biodiversity for instance.



Orchestration is a promising tool for the FAO and collaborators in the governance of soil biodiversity. Firstly, by focusing on offering ideational and material resources, the knowledge gap on soil life can be closed. This forms the basis of more awareness and action. Secondly, as a local-accumulative problem, soil biodiversity is best governed regionally and locally instead of internationally, at least in terms of hard regulations. Orchestration allows international institutions to encourage such local and national action without a sovereignty compromise. Lastly, by also raising awareness on soils in other actors such as consumers, indirect drivers of soil biodiversity loss can also be tackled. Orchestration is the best option that FAO has in pushing for soil biodiversity conservation.



Taking stock and moving forward: Towards binding legislations on soil biodiversity?


Mercedes Muñoz, Ecosystem Programme Officer at IUCN and part of IUCN’s agriculture and land health initiative, follows the international landscape of soil biodiversity closely. According to her, the knowledge gaps that have initially been hurdles to acting on soil biodiversity loss have largely been closed these last years. What now needs to happen is more public awareness raising, the bringing together of more stakeholders - short the “bridge between science and society”. Furthermore, there is a need for more standardisation in and coordination of all the actions for soil biodiversity. All of this is already underway.


“The good thing is: We have started. There is the Global Soil Partnership, there is a lot of initiatives out there that are pursuing the improvement of soils. [...] The knowledge is there, we just need to connect it and share it with the rest!” Mercedes Muñoz, IUCN

Muñoz expects that soil biodiversity will receive more attention in the future and that eventually it would be governed through more legally binding instruments. Listen to parts of our conversation in the podcast below.





The CBD is already preparing a plan of action on soil biodiversity for the next Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, in October this year. However, “hard” governance of soil biodiversity on a global scale would come with many new challenges. Its potential overlap with the agricultural trade regime or non-compliance because of sovereignty concerns are just two examples thereof. For now, the most important contributions by international organisations, particularly the FAO, are knowledge creation, awareness raising, and coordination, bringing states and other stakeholders together. This would hopefully inspire and support actions on more local levels - as this is theorized as more effective for local accumulative environmental problems. After all, the international terrain of soil biodiversity governance is made up of fields and patches of all kinds.



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