By Gerold Bödeker, FAO Representative to Iran

Let’s mind the soil as it truly matters

December 4, 2019

Soil is an essential natural resource for sustaining life on Earth. It is a core component of land resources, agricultural development and ecological sustainability that constitutes the basis for the preservation and advancement of human life on this planet.

Soil is one of nature’s most complex ecosystems, contains a great diversity of organisms which play many vital functions such as the breakdown of plant debris, take in components from the atmosphere, and aerate the soil as well as regulation of carbon, nutrient and hydrological cycles and breakdown of toxic elements. 

This natural resource also plays an important role in supporting animal biodiversity above ground, including wildlife and domesticated livestock.

The most widely recognised function of the soil is its support for food production. It is estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils. Healthy soil supplies the essential nutrients, water and oxygen that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish.

Soil is also crucial for ensuring the continued growth and maintenance of natural and managed vegetation, including our diverse forests and grasslands and the huge breadth of species and varieties that are cultivated or managed for their food, feed, fuel, fibre and medicinal products.

Soil organic matter is one of the major pools of carbon in the biosphere and is important both as a driver of climatic change and as a response variable to climate change, capable of acting both as a source and sink of carbon. Therefore, when managed sustainably, it can play an important role in mitigating and ameliorating the risks and effects of climate change. 

Functional soil plays a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to floods and drought. Water infiltration through soil traps pollutants and prevents them from leaching into the groundwater. The soil captures and stores water, making it available for absorption by crops, thus minimizing surface evaporation and maximizing water use efficiency and productivity. Healthy soil with a high organic matter content can store large amounts of water. This is beneficial not only during droughts when soil moisture is crucial to plant growth but also during heavy rainfall because the soil reduces flooding and run-off by slowing the release of water into streams.

Considering the criticality of the soil to keep the life-cycle chain unbroken, all of us must keep in mind that the soil is a finite resource and its loss is not recoverable within a human lifespan. 

In many regions of the world, erosion is the greatest threat to soil health and soil ecosystem services.

Erosion removes fertile surface soil, incorporates denser subsoil into the surface layer, reduces optimum rooting zone for extraction of water and nutrients from soil, loses the charged organic materials from the surface soil horizon, transfers sediment and sediment-bound contaminants to water bodies, decreases the surface water infiltration and water-holding capacity of soil, transfers the particles  and releases organic carbon from the soil and degrades the water and nutrient supply of the soil.

All these processes lead to yield reduction, climate change intensification, agrochemical contamination of waterways and last but not least desertification; the changes that put food security at risk and cause serious economic losses.

Impacts of erosion are not limited to environmental or economic spheres. Erosion visibly degrades landscapes through the exposure of subsoil, presence of rills and gullies, or the occurrence of dust storms and subsequently affects the physical and psychological experiences of local communities who retain strong links to their home places. 

How can we save our soil?

Promoting sustainable management of soil can contribute to healthy soil and thus to the effort of eradicating hunger and food insecurity and to stable ecosystems. There is an urgent need to stop land degradation and soil erosion in their various forms and establish frameworks for sustainable soil management systems.

Governments also must increase the area under sustainable soil management practices, enhance the restoration of degraded soil, and promote sustainable production intensification. 

FAO urges its member states to provide and adopt suitable technologies, sustainable and inclusive agricultural policies, effective extension programs and sound education systems so that more is produced with less. 

FAO supports the development of national soil information systems to assist decision-making on sustainable land and natural resources use. 

Today we celebrate World Soil Day calling people and stakeholders all around the world to take action to “Stop Soil Erosion” to “Save Our Future.”

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