Fostering Biodiversity and Managing Water: In Conversation at the World Living Soil Forum

On 1 and 2 June, 2022, Moët Hennessy unveiled its World Living Soil Forum. Over two packed days, scientists, wine professionals, economists and other professionals examined soil and the role it plays in the ecosystem. What follows is an edited transcript of the plenary session, “Fostering Biodiversity and Managing Water, Key Resources for Thriving Soils,” moderated by Pauline Vicard, ARENI co-founder and executive director.

Joining her were renowned biologist Professor Gilles Boeuf; Stuart Orr, the Freshwater Leader at the World Wildlife Fund; Hélène Valade, the Director of Environmental Development at LVMH, and Professor Diana Wall, Director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University, recorded on the 1st of June 2022 at the World Living Soil Forum.

Fostering Biodiversity and Managing Water – Recorded on June 1st, 2022 at the World Living Soil Forum

Pauline Vicard:

Let’s take a deep dive into what living soils actually are and what they need to thrive. What we know for sure is that we can’t think of healthy, resilient living soils without talking about biodiversity and water. When we talk about biodiversity, what does it mean?

Gilles Boeuf:

This word is very recent. It was created by a guy from California, Walter G. Rosen, in 1985, a contraction of “biological diversity”. At the beginning, it was complicated to accept this term, it was only a word used in the labs until 1992. It is the definition of all relationships between all living beings, including bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals together, and also their environment. Biodiversity is the living part of nature. The humans are included of course.

Pauline Vicard:

Some scientists say that we are facing a sixth mass extinction, but you don’t talk about extinction. You talk about the destruction of the living. I want to take a second to go back to the main causes that have led us to this situation, because of course we think about climate change, but it’s not the only problem.

Gilles Boeuf:

It’s also contamination, overfishing, over hunting, and also climate change. But the climate has been changing since the beginning. The problem is that today, it’s changing too fast, and the living are not able to follow the velocity of change. We had extinction in the past, 60 extinctions for 800 million years.  And with five, very acute. We are now probably creating the conditions of a new mass extinction. We have to stop. And we have to address this matter with very clear words. If we accept that we are biodiversity living with biodiversity, maybe we will be more protective of this biodiversity.

We are living through a collapse of the wild species; at the same time we have an explosion of domestic species today. For example, if take into account the chickens, 23 billion chickens, it’s a higher level of chickens than all the living wild birds of the planet. The enemy is not the plane, the chickens, the pig, or the car. It is a system. It’s a system allowing us to wash our car with drinking water. We are made of water. It is fabulous molecule for whole living system. It is not to wash your car. We have to change.

The problem is that today, [the climate] is changing too fast, and the living are not able to follow the velocity of change. We are now probably creating the conditions of a new mass extinction. We have to stop. If we accept that we are biodiversity living with biodiversity, maybe we will be more protective of this biodiversity.

Gilles Boeuf, Biologist

Pauline Vicard:

And what does losing biodiversity means for us humans?

Gilles Boeuf:

Look at COVID-19. What is that? It is a virus of a bat coming from some caves in China. We have to leave these bats alone, inside their caves! We must avoid the next [virus]. Maybe the next one will be able to kill young people.

Pauline Vicard:

What does it mean for a company like LVMH to lose biodiversity?

Hélène Valade:

Our responsibility as the company is to listen to these terrible diagnoses by the scientific community and to act to improve things. That is, to limit our environmental footprint, our impact on biodiversity, but also on water and on climate. All our products come from nature; there is leather, cotton, there are plants and flowers. Behind our Champagnes are soils and vines. We are in an entire relationship with nature. Our concern is not simply to have the best grapes to make the best Champagne, but to preserve and improve the living quality of the soil. Our concern is not only to have the most extraordinary plant species for our perfume, but to ensure that these plant species are produced in the best condition for the environment; our concern is not only to have the best quality cotton, but also that it is produced with the lowest possible water consumption.

All our products come from nature; there is leather, cotton, there are plants and flowers. Behind our Champagnes are soils and vines. We are in an entire relationship with nature.

Hélène Valade, Director of Environmental Development, LVMH

Pauline Vicard:

Stuart, same exercise. Can we start with a definition? What are “fresh waters” and what role do they play in our economies?

Stuart Orr:

Fresh water is a simple one. If we think of all of the water on the planet, 3% is fresh water. Two thirds is locked in deep fossil aquifers, or in the polar regions. Only 1% is the water that makes up our rivers, our streams, our ponds—that’s the water that we can access. What does that have to do with economics? Everything. Every country has a planning office of water and they understand where they get their water from and how they’re going to use it in their economy. What kind of mining they’re going to do; if they’re an agrarian economy, if they’re going to import their food. How it’s going to be used to take water to cities, and carry waste away from those cities. And, of course, there are trade-offs.

As we know, climate change is really water change, and disrupting everything that we held as constant for many years. Just to get to biodiversity, [in] that 1% of fresh water is 51% of all fish species on the planet. There are 263 freshwater turtle species. They live in single river systems—you cannot find them in other river systems. They can’t move. And so therefore that’s why when we track global biodiversity, the biome that is impacted the most is freshwater because these systems are discrete and small, and so interrupted by infrastructure, overuse, overfishing, overplanning, pollution, et cetera.

Pauline Vicard:

What’s the level of fresh water today compared to what it was? Are we losing it?

Stuart Orr:

The world is living under increased water scarcity, mainly because we’re adding three billion more people to the planet and each of those people needs food, they need water. In hydrological terms, no, we have the same amount of water that we’ve had on the planet for the last few hundred thousand years, say a million years. The problem is that we are polluting it when we put it back, and we’re taking too much out when we take it. Climate is disrupting all of that. Our glaciers are being affected. So there’s a  disequilibrium that is occurring.

In hydrological terms, we have the same amount of water that we’ve had on the planet for the last few hundred thousand years. The problem is that we are polluting it when we put it back, and we’re taking too much out when we take it. Climate is disrupting all of that. Our glaciers are being affected. So there’s a  disequilibrium that is occurring.

Stuart Orr, Freshwater Leader, World Wildlife Fund

Pauline Vicard:

Diana, we’re going to go underground now with you. What is unique about below-ground biodiversity? How is it linked to what’s above?

Diana Wall:

Number one, what we see above ground is not nearly the diversity we have underneath the ground. It’s estimated that somewhere between 40% to 50% of all biodiversity is below ground. And we are only starting our exploration.

Nematodes are king. They’re around every soil, even soils in Antarctica. They’re all part of this ecosystem that we’ve been hearing about. And so they are not only food for other animals in the soil, but we don’t realize how many insects above ground, and how many other animals depend on that as a source of nutrition for them. Birds eat some of these things that are in the soil besides earth worms. And they depend on them.

It’s estimated that somewhere between 40% to 50% of all biodiversity is below ground. And we are only starting our exploration.

Diana Wall, Director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University

Pauline Vicard:

When you link nematodes and the vine, it’s not usually very good. But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. And that’s part of the problem—we consider bacteria, virus, nematodes and fungi to be bad.

Diana Wall:

That is how it was for me when I started learning about soil. I was in a plant pathology department in agriculture. And so I saw the nematode as a demon going after the plant. But then when you look under the microscope and you see the shimmering, amazing variety of life in a soil sample, you understand that they are an important part of very complex food systems and that they have a great variety of functions.

Pauline Vicard:

I didn’t realize that below ground, so many living organisms are activated by water. I’m just starting to realize that we are losing so many things because of the dryness of the soil. Is that correct?

Diana Wall:

Yes. What happens is that as the soils dry, they desiccate, they change their morphological shape. They become little dried-up circles. And so they can be blown like microbes and fungal spores in the air with erosion or they can be carried by water in floods. And so they leave their soil habitat in each soil. Habitat is a community that we are making progress on, using molecular tools to say who’s there. It’s really quite an amazing field of research.

We used to think that soil was just kind of like a dump. You could just put it in and another species would take care of something. But that’s not true, because they all have these different functions, these different jobs. When you think about changing the temperature, we used to think, “ah, that’s okay, we’ve got plenty more [organisms] coming behind it”. It’s not true. They have temperature thresholds. We’re seeing that biodiversity is decreasing when you have this kind of damage to soil habitats.

Pauline Vicard:

Gilles, we’re talking about the importance of having more species, but it’s not only the number of species, it’s the genetic diversity within one species. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Gilles Boeuf:

How many species do we know today? Including 300,000 in the ocean, 2.4 millions on the planet. We eliminate species, but also we kill a lot of the genetic diversity of the species remaining. That is extremely important for the future. It is essential to avoid only the same species and the same clones [because of]  new diseases we will face in the future.

Pauline Vicard:

Staying on agriculture Stuart, I’ve got to ask you what proportion of agriculture is irrigated, and is irrigation a good or a bad thing?

Stuart Orr:

Irrigation is a great thing. We wouldn’t be alive without it. I think 70% of all the water we take out of lakes, rivers and aquifers goes into irrigated agriculture. That’s a global average. In some countries you can find as much as 90% to 95% of their available water goes into agriculture. That agriculture feeds about 40% of the global food. But the yields that we get from irrigated agriculture are typically three to eight times higher because we can deliver water at the right time of crop growth and ensure that we get the optimum yields. Irrigation is absolutely critical to global food supply. And it’s critical to industries, whether it’s the cotton industry that businesses rely on, whether it’s the sugar industry, whether it’s the wine industry. It is absolutely essential.

The flip side of that is what is the water quality, the returning water from the use of agriculture? And unfortunately, European rivers are in pretty terrible shape. And we all know that the agricultural runoff in most countries is pretty poor. It’s a global challenge. And so, yes, I think that the quality side of irrigation can be quite devastating.

I think right now—and this may be a controversial subject, so I’ll be very careful—I think right now I’m feeling that a lot of the environmental movement is being not only defined by climate change. It’s being defined by carbon. And I think that’s slightly dangerous. The point I’m trying to make is as climate change hits more and more, we’re going to feel it through the water environment. Water is the way in which most of us are going to feel climate. It’s going be too much water, too little water, wrong time, wrong place. That’s the story.

Water is the way in which most of us are going to feel climate. It’s going be too much water, too little water, wrong time, wrong place.

Stuart Orr, Freshwater Leader, World Wildlife Fund

Pauline Vicard:

Hélène, you’ve heard some elements of the solutions we need. We need more biodiversity. We need more genetic pools. When most of what you produce originates in agriculture, how do you prioritize your action based on what we’ve just heard?

Hélène Valade:

It’s important to measure water and climate footprint. I think regenerative agriculture projects are very, very important to address these issues of water and climate and biodiversity, because adapted agricultural practices have the potential to restore ecosystems, recover soil fertility, reverse biodiversity loss and store carbon. And I think rebuild water cycles. We are developing a lot of regenerative agricultural projects. It’s difficult to summarize these projects because there is no single solution, because our projects depend on the local characteristics of our supply chains. But the overall goal I think should be to move from an intensive monoculture.

There will be no more landscapes of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and this will improve the quality of the soil and therefore its capacity to store carbon.

Pauline Vicard:

Diana, when a soil is dead, which, is it dead for good or can we always bring it back to life?

Diana Wall:

I would say it’d be cheaper to start saving soil now than to let it go dead. When it’s dead and there are no living things in it, it’s going to be hard, but wind blows, water moves into it, organisms are going to come into it. But it’s going to take years and the cost is going to be huge. So it’s not the wisest thing to do is to let your soils just totally deplete.

Pauline Vicard:

Stuart, when it comes to water and water sustainability in agriculture in particular, do we need more efficient systems? Do we need to invest in technology or do we need better agricultural practices?

Stuart Orr:

We need it all. The overarching challenge for everybody in every country is water governance and water management. You can’t replace the role of people.

The way that they manage water in the western United States is completely different than the way we do in Europe. It’s connected to land rights and those kinds of things. And so I think each country has uniquely different challenges around the water they have. But to your point about technology, yes, efficiency is very important. And there is a great deal of innovation around irrigation efficiency.

What’s really exciting in the water sector is the amount of artificial intelligence, and real time data. A really deep understanding of climate scenarios that are helping farmers to understand when the rains are coming. I’m seeing that innovation come out of the water sector.

But it doesn’t replace the stuff we still have to do. We still have to manage water correctly. We still have to trade off. We still have to be efficient, but we can need to bring in technology.

Pauline Vicard:

I’ve been very inspired by what you’ve said Gilles, that if we want people to care about biodiversity, we have to demonstrate its wonders. We have to show people how life is actually amazing. And we’ve been doing this quite well when it comes to above-ground—you might have seen My Octopus Teacher. But I think maybe one of the problems for soil is that we don’t realize how full of wonder it is. So I wanted to finish by asking you each: if you had to choose a living thing under the ground, that can demonstrate to people why we need to fight for it, what would it be?

Gilles Boeuf:

The “blob” is a big amoeba living in soils. It has been functioning for 800 million years and is to this day the most efficient at finding the quickest way to go from one point to the next. It’s like a living GPS. We have to look at how it’s able to do that in the first place.

Hélène Valade:

For me, mycorrhizae. A network of connections between fungi and plants. Thanks to this, plants can receive water and minerals.

Diana Wall:

I have to say something about mites and nematodes. They’re so diverse that some of them feed on fungi, and then ones that feed on bacteria and plant roots. You can identify these under a microscope and see the differences. If we didn’t have those tiny invertebrates feeding on the fungi, we wouldn’t have the turnover of microbes that we need.

Stuart Orr:

All I’ll say is uncovering the world of fresh water biodiversity, which is remarkable to people. And even though we are losing species at a rate that we really shouldn’t be, we’re constantly discovering new species all the time. It’s fascinating world. And when we go out into public and talk about this, it’s amazing how it resonates with people. They want to hear these stories.


The World Living Soils Forum is an international forum organized by a private actor Moet Hennessy to: 

  • Connect people committed to soil regeneration
  • Share concrete actions for sustainable and regenerative viticulture/agriculture
  • Strengthen the link between Science, Innovation, and realities of the field
  • Gather Science-based KPIs and methodologies to champion soil health

The forum brought together researchers, experts, public institutions, journalists, trade associations and companies from the Food & Beverage industry for two days of conferences, round tables, masterclasses, and workshops.

This first edition of the World Living Soils Forum took place on June 1 & 2, 2022 in Arles-en-Provence. You can watch all the replays of the sessions HERE in both English and French.