Why Soils Matter in the Global Food Security Debate

image available at https://www.bgs.ac.uk/nercsoilportal/

Some of you may know (although I have to confess that I was personally unaware until yesterday) that last week was ‘Global Soil Week’ when more than 450 scientists, policy makers and practitioners from 71 countries gathered together in Berlin to discuss the role of soils in society. The theme of the week was ‘Losing Ground?’ and many topics were discussed including the economics of land degradation, which strategies to use to ensure the sustainable use of soils and land in order to achieve water, energy and food security and how best to manage soil in a sustainable manner?

Reading about the week has made me realise that I haven’t yet discussed ‘soil’ explicitly on thinkingcountry. I am currently writing an undergraduate dissertation thesis on earthworms and whilst I personally find them and their soil environments endlessly fascinating, I realise that many people see the ground beneath our feet as mere dirt, a physical structure in to which other physical structures can be maintained. However, as anyone with a little bit of knowledge about soil ecosystems knows, soils are teeming with life and their effectiveness as environments is paramount for the sustenance of life above the ground. For all species, but perhaps especially for human kind under a paradigm of an agriculture controlled by few and practised by few, healthy soils are relied upon by all on planet Earth.

This article will try to answer the question why does soil matter?

Our soils are a finite, non-renewable and reducing resource. However, there are only very few policy makers and scientists who see how important discussing and dealing with soil degradation and loss is in relation to discussing future global challenges such as food security and climate change.

Soils are essential for life to take place. Simple. They form the basis for 90% of worldwide food production for humans and provide support for thousands of species whether that be providing a living habitat for bacteria, fungi and invertebrates living in the soil or providing nutrients and structural support for plants.

Soils help to curb the effects of climate change by storing more than 400 billion tons of carbon (to compare, forests store 360 billion tons and the atmosphere 800 billion tons in the form of carbon dioxide).

Why should we be concerned?

As has already been mentioned, soils are a finite resource, accounting for just 12% of the Earth’s surface. It is also very slow in formation, taking about 500 years to form an inch (2.5 cm) of nutrient rich humus on working agricultural land. Sadly, many farmers do not take sufficient care of their soils, even though they are completely reliant on them to maintain their lifestyles and keep the income coming in. Modern agricultural techniques have additionally largely killed off mixed farming, meaning that far less manure is returned to the soil, meaning in consequence that humus levels are falling. With less humus addition and with a rising amount of nutrients being removed from the soil we have created a nutrient deficit in many areas around the globe, meaning our soils are rapidly depleting. Indeed, a quarter of the Earth’s surface is already degraded in terms of soil capacity, affecting 1.5 billion people today. This is set to only get worse unless we take action to improve our soil systems and crucially incentivise farmers, as was done following the Dust Bowl in the United States, to ameliorate their soils. An estimated 24 billion tons of soil degrade through erosion and desertification each year. This has to stop if global population is to continue to rise and if we are to raise yields of ‘the big four’ – wheat, rice, corn and soya – to ‘feed the world’. Feeding the world needs to begin at the beginning – by feeding our soil ecosystems. Nature can be harnessed for humankind’s benefit, but she needs the tools and the fuel to do so.

It should be said that this article has not and will not touch on issues of soil contamination through pollution and salinization nor has it touched on issues of human health. These may be subjects for another article.

Much work has been done on laying out options for how we can improve our soils and I urge you to research them and educate yourself on this highly important matter for our future food security. It is not all bad news and there is good work being done now to enhance soil health by improving soil habitats and ecosystems. However, the profile of soil needs to be raised if we are to have good debate within political and agricultural circles in particular. The subject of soil cannot be removed from wider issues of climate change and global food security. Soil may have an image problem as an object of study but it is a subject that is truly interdisciplinary and the consequences of soil research can reach far and wide. Why scientists are not drawn to pedology, edaphology, oligochaetology or similar areas of study I cannot say, but I really hope that future scientists are, for the sake of us all.

2 thoughts on “Why Soils Matter in the Global Food Security Debate

  1. How interesting. I hope it was a productive meeting. I know nothing of the science, but on an atavistic level, to debate the importance of soil, seems crucial. Earth and water… we cannot get more elemental.

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