World Soil Day celebrates the value of healthy soil. Find out what a new soil biodiversity report found on soil’s place in a sustainable future.
I’m writing this story on the 5th of December, which happens to be World Soil Day. The United Nations made this one of their international days to remind us of how important healthy soil can be and to encourage agriculture that manages the land sustainably.
They picked December 5th because that was the birthday of the much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. He served as that country’s head of state for more than 70 years.
The king was an enthusiastic sponsor of marking a day to honour our soil. He heard about the idea from a proposal from the International Union of Soil Sciences in 2002.
“Keep Soil Alive. Protect Soil Diversity.”
The theme for this year’s World Soil Day is “Keep soil alive. Protect soil diversity.” We’ve discussed soil biodiversity in these pages before. Still, some new research has come to light since we published that story.
What’s behind this year’s chosen theme is the need to maintain viable ecosystems and our own well-being through soil management. The greatest threat is soil biodiversity loss.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) aims to increase soil awareness. Their plan is to encourage governments, organizations, communities, and individuals worldwide to work toward more healthy soil for humanity.
Hardworking Fellow Organisms Living Underground
The FAO uses World Soil Day to remind us about those hardworking fellow organisms living underground. Those microscopic bacteria, fascinating fungi and wiggly earthworms all support vital processes for our biosphere.
More than 25% of the world’s biodiversity lives in our soil. Yet, scientists have only studied about 1% of the microcosm beneath our feet. There are more organisms in a spoonful of healthy soil than there are people on Earth.
The FAO just released its first-ever soil report, timing it with this year’s World Soil Day. They’ve called it State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity. Its authors include over 300 soil scientists from around the world .
Over 300 Soil Scientists from Around the World
The authors define soil biodiversity as “the variety of life below ground, from genes and species to the communities they form, as well as the ecological complexes to which they contribute and to which they belong, from soil micro-habitats to landscapes.”
The report confirms that the loss of biodiversity is a major global threat to our soil’s health in many parts of the world. It sets out what we know about soil biodiversity, the hazards it faces, and the solutions that soil biodiversity can provide to us all.
“Nature-Based Solution to Humanity’s Problems”
The report’s central message is that “Soil biodiversity could constitute, if an enabling environment is built, a real nature-based solution to most of the problems humanity is facing today, from the field to the global scale.”
The micro-organisms living in our soil change the habitat around them with their biological activity. Their life processes change complex molecules into simpler ones for plants to absorb and process.
It’s hard to imagine these minuscule creatures having any impact on our immense planet. Even so, soil organisms play a vital role in carbon capture, nutrient cycling, forming soil structure and regulating biodiversity up above them.
We should note that human activity is the main culprit behind the decline in soil biodiversity on this World Soil Day. Scientists view land use as the primary cause of the mass extinction crisis decimating our planet.
Humans Disrupt the Underground Food Web
In the case of our soil, when humans intensify our land use, we change the soil structure without even realizing it. We also disrupt the underground food web in terms of the number of organisms and their relationships to each other.
People used to dismiss the importance of soil biodiversity. They realized that many different species lived in the earth. Still, they argued that the environment didn’t really need all of them. A lot of them seemed to be doing the same things.
Today, researchers are discovering that the soil’s food web is more complicated than that. When they study the soil habitat in detail, they find that most species play more than one role and have multiple functions.
Connections are Interwoven and Elaborate
The connections are interwoven and elaborate. They’re also self-reinforcing and self-regulating, at least until we humans mess them up.
All of these issues affect our food security. Most of the world’s people eat a diet based on plants that grow in soil. Even in countries like Canada, where most of us eat a much more meat-centred diet, the livestock behind all that meat pastures on soil-based plants.
That makes the quality of our crops vital, no matter what we choose to eat. Investigators have proven time and again that crop quality depends on soil quality. Increasingly, they’re also finding that soil quality results from soil biodiversity.
Population Growing Faster than Food Capacity
One of our planet’s challenges is that our human population is growing faster than our capacity to produce food. That isn’t sustainable, and we need to find ways to boost our crop yields.
Industrial agriculture has done that, but not at a pace that will meet our future needs. Soil biodiversity seems to be the best way to add nutrients to the soil sustainably for the generations to come.
In the past, when soil scientists thought about the health effects of our soil, they mostly focused on which soil-based germs caused diseases. Modern researchers are finding that the truth is that most of the micro-organisms living in the Earth are good for us.
Soil Biodiversity Improves Nutrients in Our Food
Our soil’s living things prevent erosion, filter our water, break down pollutants, and capture carbon from the air. As if that weren’t enough, we’re coming to realize that soil biodiversity improves our food nutrients, protects us from food-borne illness and strengthens our immune systems.
The report touches on an aspect of soil that we rarely consider. On this World Soil Day, it’s appropriate to realize that our soil plays a central role in human culture.
It might not be the first thing we think of when we reflect on meaningful experiences, but soil contributes profoundly to our sense of place. Traditional farmers like my dad and his ancestors didn’t own the soil so much as have a relationship with it. It’s hard to put a price on that or define it in scientific terms, but our soil gives our lives value.
Disconnected from Our Soil and Food It Provides
Many of us have gotten disconnected from our soil and the food it provides. I believe that’s at the root of many of our most daunting challenges as we learn to live sustainably.
World Soil Day is a UN initiative, and the report goes into some length on how soil biodiversity supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. In concluding that section of the document, the authors remind us of our soil’s vital importance to our future.
“Soil biodiversity can help avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation, sustaining and improving habitat for people and other life on Earth. Long taken for granted, soil biodiversity can be embraced as part of the urgent need to develop a more sustainable future for all.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity
About World Soil Day
State of knowledge of soil biodiversity – Status, challenges and potentialities
Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices
Soil Biodiversity Now Tracked Globally
Agricultural Biodiversity Under Threat Worldwide