Soil – ‘the cinderella subject’

Last week I gave a talk to a brilliantly engaged audience (or so they seemed!) in Essex on the hopelessly neglected subject that is ‘soil’. I have received several messages asking for the topic to be profiled more regularly on the blog, so this post will be the first of a week’s worth of posts dedicated to soils.


I have blogged about soil and soil organisms before, although given it has become my most significant conservation interest, I don’t write about it nearly enough. I am still at the beginning of my own ‘soil journey of discovery’, having started to look more closely at it a few years ago, and there is loads to learn. Anyone who has garnered even a small interest in soil will know how complex and brilliantly fascinating the subject is.

It was Darwin’s work on earthworms that really encouraged me to look more deply at soils as a subject and I themed my undergraduate environmental history thesis around it.

‘’The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.’’ (‘Worms’ (as it is affectionately known) was published shortly before Darwin’s death in 1881)

The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (London, 1881)

Learning about soils and soil organisms is infectious. There is much that we still don’t know about soil as a resource and as an ecosystem. It is therefore an adventure and a voyage of discovery and there is a sense of pioneering behind it, something that really excites me. Soil covers biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, mathematics, geography, geology, agricultural science, entomology, conservation science, hydrology and the humanities etc etc etc. No matter your background, you are likely to find an interest in soils. What is needed (and I speak here as a non soil scientist) is for researchers of all disciplines to grasp the subject and take it forward. Outside the academic and farming communities, soil needs to be appreciated for providing such a wide range of services (we will explore these through the week).


A couple of weeks ago the Environmental audit committee at Westminster held the first ever (supposedly) session on soil health in a Parliamentary context. In their debate it was regularly labelled ‘a cinderella subject’, which is true given the small amount of air time it is usually granted. The debate is worth a watch and is available by clicking here.

Soil receives less attention than air pollution, water quality or climate change, yet it is vital to food production, flood prevention and carbon storage.

Soil does more than feed us.

It stores and filters water.

It filters, traps and recycles pollutants.

It acts as a source and a store for carbon.

It influences the distribution of species.

Soils are part of our cultural heritage – they preserve archaeological remains and even leave a cultural imprint as a landscape record of agricultural management.

HOWEVER, although soil may appear permanent, it is actually incredibly vulnerable and we abuse it at our peril.

This week I hope to open your mind to soils and encourage you to explore the subject further. In my opinion, the 2015 UN Year of Soils was a hopelessly wasted opportunity. Far more should have been done to raise the profile of soils widely, both in terms of education and encouraging policy change. There is a conversation going on about soils, but it remains small scale and localised to those with a distinct interest in the subject. In reality, we all need healthy soils and this week I will hopefully show you why.




4 thoughts on “Soil – ‘the cinderella subject’

  1. Thank you for writing about soil, Ben. We need as many people as possible to do this. However, I want to assure you and your readers that some of us are doing a lot to raise the topic of soil. I am a member of the British Society of Soil Science and Chair of its Northern Soils Network. The Society did a lot last year for the International Year of Soils. So, some members appeared on TV and radio, while others (including me) gave talks to schools and the public across the UK. Yet others wrote articles in a number of public-access media. Earlier this year I was invited to contribute this item on soil to the blog ‘Planet on the edge’
    We are all working hard and shouting loudly and the words will get through. Unfortunately, soil isn’t as ‘sexy’ as earthquakes, volcanoes or glaciers so people can be forgiven for not knowing that our lives depend on it. The great news is that in 2022 (it will come sooner than you think!) the UK will host the World Congress on Soil Science in Glasgow, the first time that this congress has been held here in almost a century. I’m sorry that you saw IYS2015 as wasted, but I hope you are more reassured that a lot was happening in the UK … including planting trees on the Falkland Isles. The fact that the media don’t always see soil as interesting is frustrating for those, like us, who are passionate about our vital resource.

    1. Thank you very much for this comment Jenny and I apologise if my comment on IYS15 came across as disparaging. It certainly was not meant in that way. I wholeheartedly applaud everybody who got involved and highlighted the plight of soils during that process and since. My frustration is largely directed at the media. It is tough beyond belief to get environmental issues pushed into the spotlight – and you know more than most the extent of the difficulties in getting soils into the headlines.

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