Soils are the birthplace of food: They provide a substrate, nutrients and water to grow most of the food we eat. They also perform a whole host of other services, including purifying our water and stabilizing our climate. Today more than half of the world’s land surface is being managed for agriculture and forestry. These lands are increasingly under pressure to meet the needs of a growing population. In many areas, the land and soil have become degraded to a point where they can no longer grow the food and fiber they once did.
The United Nations recognized the essential role that soils play for creating a sustainable future by naming 2015 the International Year of Soils. To inform this program, a team of scientists from a dozen countries — including James Gerber and Paul West, co-directors of IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative — reviewed the current state of knowledge on how land management affects soil quality. The team’s work was published recently in two major papers in peer-reviewed journals.
“It’s critical to understand how managing the land improves or degrades it,” says West. “Building and maintaining healthy soils provides long-term benefits for both people and nature. Healthy soils lead to healthy lives.”
“A number of global initiatives, including Climate Smart Agriculture and a proposal for the climate negotiations by the French government to increase global soil carbon stocks, are all coalescing now to present the perfect opportunity to value and improve soils worldwide,” adds Pete Smith, lead author and a professor at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Scottish Food Security Alliance-Corps & ClimateXChange, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
The first report, published in June 2015 in the online journal SOIL, summarized the important linkages among soils, biodiversity, climate and other factors for providing direct benefits such as food and fiber, as well as soil’s underlying role in regulating water quality and climate. “Soils provide the foundation that sets the stage for most of life on Earth. It’s crucial to understand these benefits, their current status and trends, as well as how that can be managed. We need to stop treating soil like dirt,” says West.
The second report, published in August 2015 in Global Change Biology, summarized the impact of human activities such as land use change, land management, land degradation and land pollution on soil. Like the previous paper, it identifies gaps in knowledge and calls for additional research to fill them. In addition, it proposes activities and policies to protect soils from human harm in the future. In particular, the authors recommend that the United Nations capitalize on the occasion of the International Year of Soils to create a global initiative aimed at boosting soil health and ensuring the integrity of the world’s soils by making them a key component of future environmental protection and sustainable development efforts.
“This year, countries are making new commitments for the Sustainable Development Goals as well as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Negotiations in Paris,” says Smith. “Soils are integral to sustainably managing our planet now and well into the future. Managing for healthy soils creates a win-win for meeting these commitments and providing food for the future.”
Note: This research contributes to the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1), a multinational effort to identify pathways for sustainably meeting food security needs on limited land.
Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flickr/Creative Commons)