Save Our Soils

To protect the planet's soils from collapse
– and thus ourselves –
we must radically change the way we farm

by Marius Münstermann
photos & videos Christian Werner
illustrations Erik Tuckow

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Green Revolution 2.0

„Data is the new soil.“

David McCandless, information designer and data-journalist

It poured like buckets during the night. Yet, Bernd Olligs' boots do not sink into the mud as the 55-year-old trudges onto his wet field in Rommerskirchen in the Lower Rhine region. „The water has to be able to seep away on the spot“, Olligs explains. To demonstrate how this works for him, Olligs takes long strides out onto the field directly behind the Damianshof farm, which is now in its sixth generation. 

Sugar beets, potatoes, wheat and rapeseed on 120 hectares. „On one of the best soils in the world“, Bernd Olligs says proudly.

Power lines cross the fields, on the horizon the cooling towers of the Neurath coal-fired power station pump steam into the cloudy sky. Behind them, the gigantic coal mines of Garzweiler gape into the landscape. Bernd Olligs works within sight of one of Europe's biggest CO2 guzzlers.

Soils like his, on the other hand, could be a key component in the fight against the climate crisis. At least Bayer is convinced of this. The Damianshof is one of 27 farms with which the German agrochemical giant has been building up its „Carbon Farming“ program in Europe since 2022.

The business model behind carbon farming is to reward farmers for the humus in their fields. As building humus removes CO₂ from the atmosphere, farmers receive certificates for every tonne of carbon stored in their soil. The certificates can then be turned into money. These certificates are issued by companies that act as service providers who want to measure and prove carbon storage. Other companies, in turn, can buy the humus certificates and use them to improve their carbon footprint, at least on paper.

However, this idea is increasingly being criticized – especially since the Who's Who of the global economy has discovered farmland as a carbon sink. „Carbon farming is part of a rapidly growing corporate agenda pushed by big polluters from the agriculture and fossil fuel industry alike“, Sophie Scherger from the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) states in her comprehensive analysis. „Corporate polluters see the new framework as a massive opportunity to generate great amounts of carbon credits that will allow continued emissions and delay urgently needed emissions cuts.“

In the US, companies like McDonald's and Microsoft have already installed their own carbon farming projects over the recent years. The Italian oil and gas company Eni is marketing the cultivation of biofuels in Kenya as a climate protection measure. Shell has bought Select Carbon, a start-up whose partner companies in Australia claim to be practising carbon farming on more than nine million hectares of land. The German chemical company BASF also wants to establish its own carbon farming system. In Ireland, the company already cooperates with a brewery that produces „climate beer“ using barley from carbon-certified land. The slogan used by the Norwegian fertilizer producer Yara sums up the idea best: „Carbon farming is good for our farmers, our businesses, and our planet.“

Dutch Rabobank is one of the first financial service providers to pay farmers money for carbon certificates. In its „Soil Strategy for 2030“, the European Commission states: „The banking and financial sector is increasingly interested in investing in those farmers who apply sustainable practices and increase soil carbon, as well as creating market-based incentives for carbon storing.“

„Soils are more than just a carbon sink“

However, many doubts remain. „There is no clear definition of carbon farming“, says Axel Don, the deputy director of the Thünen Institute for Climate-Smart Agriculture in Braunschweig. He has calculated that up to five million tons of greenhouse gases could potentially be stored in Germany's arable soils by building up humus. „But this is offset by high emissions“, Don stresses. In Germany alone, agriculture emits around one hundred million tons of climate-damaging gases into the atmosphere every year, including large quantities of nitrous oxide and methane, which are even more harmful to the climate than CO2. Agriculture therefore currently contributes much more to the problem than to the solution.

In addition, the build-up of humus is not necessarily permanent, Don warns: „If agricultural practices are changed later on, the stored carbon can also be released again quickly.“ The geoecologist reminds us that „agricultural soils are more than just a carbon sink. Climate protection is just one aspect, but perhaps not the most important one.“ Humus-rich soils provide healthy food and can help to protect biodiversity and water. That's why Don says: „A narrowed view of the stored tons of CO2 carries the risk that other goals will fall by the wayside.“

Nevertheless, carbon farming is set to play a key role for the EU on the road to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. When the EU Parliament adopted its report on„sustainable carbon cycles“ in March 2023, parliamentary rapporteur Alexander Bernhuber said: „Carbon farming can become another source of income for Europe's agriculture and forestry sectors.“ With its Carbon Farming Initiative, the EU wants to support farms that cultivate catch crops or do without plowing.

Farms like Bernd Olligs' Damianshof would benefit from this. On his farmland in the Rhineland, he already implements many things that are proven to be good for the soil.

Olligs points to holes the size of mice. „That's where the roots of the winter radish have rotted.“ Last summer, after the grain harvest, he planted the radish together with other species as a catch crop.

„You have to drive over the radish with a thick roller on a cold winter morning“, Olligs explains. „The radish has to really crack under the tractor.“ The radish plants killed in this way rot, they are pulled into the soil by earthworms and converted into humus. What remains are the many holes in which the rain can seep away quickly and the subsequent crop can take root well.

But the increasingly mild frost and the roller are not always enough to kill the catch crops. In this case, Bernd Olligs uses glyphosate. „The alternative would be ploughing to a depth of around thirty centimetres, which would destroy the capillarity built up by the catch crop“, says the Bayer press spokesman who accompanies the visit at Olligs' farm. „It's about working the soil as little as possible in the spring.“

This is where the circle closes: Bayer's herbicides allow ploughless farming. In turn, Bayer can sell this way of farming as a climate protection measure in the form of carbon farming certificates.

Bayer's press spokesperson claims: „Glyphosate is definitely better for the soil and climate than intensive tillage.“ He adds: „By definition, a field is not a place for biodiversity, as the crop should grow there without competition for nutrients from other plants and weeds. Organic farming achieves this with the plow, the better option is glyphosate.“

Bernd Olligs cultivates his land mainly using the no-till mulch sowing method. For comparison purposes, he has also plowed a strip of his fields. The fact that many farmers till their soil and still use herbicides is commented by Olligs with a shake of his head: „Tilled and still sprayed – well, that's an own goal.“

„The intelligent field“

Bayer advertises Bernd Ollig's farm as a „Future Farm“. Here you can get an idea of how the agricultural industry envisions the farming of the future. This vision is rounded off with the digitalization of agriculture.

Bayer keeps an eye on every square centimetre of Ollig's fields: with sensors in the ground, cameras on the tractor, drones in the air and satellites in space. Catch traps indicate when unwanted insects appear in the crop. The data obtained in this way is combined with weather forecasts and other information. At Bayer, all the data is gathered in an app called „FieldView“. To this end, Bayer has reached an agreement with the agricultural machinery manufacturers Claas and John Deere to combine the data from all three companies. All major players in the agricultural industry have launched similar programmes for the digitalization of agriculture in recent years.

Only farmers who use one of these apps and provide their own farm data can participate in Bayer's program. „Farmers receive a free FieldView subscription if they want to participate in our carbon farming program“, the Bayer spokesperson explains. „We need that data to model what the soil has absorbed. This is the only way we can verify and certify the CO2 reduction to third parties.“ Big data is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for the production of agricultural products.

On his tablet, Bernd Olligs uses the app to display customized recommendations that Bayer has generated for his farm on a site-specific basis:

Where should he apply how much fertilizer?
Which pests are attacking his plants?
And which pesticide should he spray?

Item 1 of 5

Digital precision is supposed to replace farmers' intuition and feel for their land. The argument with which the agricultural industry is increasingly taking away farmers' decision-making authority sounds strangely familiar: agriculture, the industry claims, is too inefficient to feed a growing world population.

However, this Green Revolution 2.0 is by no means intended to replace the agrochemical inputs of the first Green Revolution. On the contrary: the digitalization of agriculture ultimately rounds off the business model of the corporations. The industry continues to supply farmers with seeds, pesticides and fertilizers – and thanks to digitalization, their use is controlled and monitored by the companies' algorithms.

Bayer frames all this as the „intelligent field“ and as „precision agriculture“, which could help farmers save on fertilizers and pesticides. A company whose core business is the sale of fertilizers and pesticides is recommending farmers to use less of these products?

„From swords
to plowshares
to flocks of drones“

Matthias Berninger, chief lobbyist at Bayer

Hardly anyone embodies this supposed change of heart as much as Matthias Berninger. As a member of the Green Party, Berninger was state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Since 2019, he has been Bayer's chief lobbyist. „We want to help ensure that agriculture makes a positive contribution. In order to feed humanity within planetary boundaries, agriculture as we know it today must undergo revolutionary change through innovation.“ This is Berninger's message: industrial agriculture is no longer the problem, but part of the solution.

The Underground Pharmacy

Bayer and competitors such as BASF and Syngenta have long been working on a new generation of pesticides and fertilizers. The companies are increasingly finding the ingredients for these new products under the ground. More precisely: in soil life.

It has long been known that the soil offers a rich reservoir of active ingredients. Almost a hundred years ago, penicillin, the first antibiotic, was extracted from a soil-dwelling fungus. Until today, more than 5000 antibiotic substances have been identified. However, because most of them are also toxic to human cells, only around one hundred antibiotics have been used as medicines to date. In times of antibiotic resistance, the search for new active substances from the soil continues as feverish as never before.

The species-rich genus Streptomyces seems particularly promising. These bacteria produce, among other substances, the odorant geosmin, which is responsible for the characteristic smell of forest soils and the smell of summer rain that falls on dry ground. Some Streptomyces species also produce active substances that are used in the deworming agent ivermectin, for example, and have proven to have a stress-reducing effect in tests on rats. Substances from other soil bacteria have an antidepressant effect and might help to reduce the emotional stress of cancer patients.

Bayer is not only searching the soil for new active ingredients for its pharmaceutical division, though. With the new possibilities offered by genome editing, life in the soil is increasingly becoming the focus of the agricultural industry. The aim is to integrate the most promising microorganisms from the soil into new products in order to sell them to farmers as fertilizers and pesticides. „Bayer’s collection of more than 125,000 microbial strains allows us to use genetic diversity to develop new and beneficial products for farmers all over the world“, Bayer claims on its website. „The fertilizer market is twice as big as the market for crop protection products and seeds combined“, says Matthias Berninger. „So that is a huge business area that is opening up for us if we focus on biology.“

Soil Life as a Product

Bayer has succeeded in developing one of the first products of its kind that uses genetically modified soil organisms: a treatment for corn and soybeans. The seed is treated to protect the freshly sown seeds and the emerging seedlings from voracious nematodes and to fertilize the plants at the same time.

Nematodes or threadworms are one of the most species-rich groups of microorganisms in the soil. Most of them are beneficial to farmers, but some feed on plants. In the US, nematodes are responsible for billions in crop losses in soybean cultivation alone. To protect the plants against nematodes, the seeds are first coated with a conventional insecticide from the neonicotinoid group. This is a common procedure, even though neonicotinoids are considered to be particularly harmful to the environment. However, the new treatment combines the effect of the insecticide with two types of bacteria that are made to colonize on the seeds.

The first bacterium also combats nematodes by forming a kind of protective film around the young roots of the plants. The toxin of the second bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, has been used as an insecticide since 1938, including in organic farming. On the new type of treated seeds, however, the bacterium is also supposed to have a fertilizing effect. To achieve this, genome editing is used to make the microorganisms secrete an enzyme into the soil. This enzyme helps to convert dead plant remains into sugar. The sugar then feeds other microbes in the soil, making them more active, which in turn provides the germinating plant with more nutrients.

The new seed treatment was originally patented by Bayer, but later had to be ceded to competitor BASF for antitrust reasons when Bayer purchased Monsanto in 2018. Since then, Bayer has paid BASF license fees that allow it to sell the seeds which have so far already been grown on several million hectares of land in the US.

„While a shift toward biological solutions could be a huge win for the environment and public health, BASF is selling this biological treatment in combination with a highly problematic neonicotinoid insecticide, clothianidin, known for its extreme toxicity to pollinators and other beneficial insects and linked to a growing set of health concerns“, the international environmental organization Friends of the Earth (FoE) states in its 2023 report on genetically modified soil organisms. The report goes on to explain that the „prophylactic, ubiquitous use of this microbial nematicide across millions of acres annually increases the likelihood that it will only contribute to the pesticide treadmill that it is being marketed as a solution to“. This leads FoE to the following analysis: „The agrochemical companies are marketing their new, biological products as a solution to a problem that they have largely created themselves — the resistance of hundreds of pest species to common pesticides.“

According to Friends of the Earth, the same applies to soil organisms that are used to fertilize crops: „This technology is an inadequate response to another problem the agrichemical industry has largely created — a farming system marked by depleted soils with vastly diminished microbial communities.“

The increasingly impoverished soil life loses control over the countless viruses, fungi and bacteria that infest our crop monocultures. Since conventional pesticides have become less and less effective as more and more pests develop resistance, a promising new market has emerged for the chemical industry's supposedly biological solutions.