Our food … is dependent on the quality of our soil. I recall a farmer with a degree in permaculture telling me that if the nutrient qualities we need are not in the soil, then no matter how well we grow our food, we won’t satisfy the nutritional needs our bodies require. I’ll add comments afterwards.
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Global soils underpin life
but future looks ‘bleak’,
warns UN report
It takes thousands of years for soils to form,
meaning protection is needed urgently, say scientists
Damian Carrington Environment editor
4 Dec 2020
Global soils are the source of all life on land but their future looks “bleak” without action to halt degradation, according to the authors of a UN report.
A quarter of all the animal species on Earth live beneath our feet and provide the nutrients for all food. Soils also store as much carbon as all plants above ground and are therefore critical in tackling the climate emergency. But there also are major gaps in knowledge, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report, which is the first on the global state of biodiversity in soils.
The report was compiled by 300 scientists, who describe the worsening state of soils as at least as important as the climate crisis and destruction of the natural world above ground. Crucially, it takes thousands of years for soils to form, meaning urgent protection and restoration of the soils that remain is needed.
The scientists describe soils as like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, and easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, pollution and global heating.
Ronald Vargas, of the FAO and the secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, said …
“Soil organisms play a crucial
role in our everyday life by
working to sustain life on Earth.”
Prof. Richard Bardgett, of the University of Manchester, who was a lead author of the report, said:
“There is a vast reservoir of biodiversity
living in the soil that is out of sight and
is generally out of mind. But few things
matter more to humans because we rely
on the soil to produce food. There’s now
pretty strong evidence that a large pro-
portion of the Earth’s surface has been
degraded as a result of human activities.”
Since the Industrial Revolution, about 135bn tonnes of soil has been lost from farmland, according to Prof Rattan Lal, the 2020 winner of the World Food prize.
People should be worried, said Bardgett.
“If things carry on as they are, the outlook
is bleak, unquestionably. But I think it’s
not too late to introduce measures now.”
Prof. Nico Eisenhauer, of Leipzig University, another lead author of the report, said:
“It is a major issue that we are dependent
on this thin layer that is sometimes just a
couple of centimetres, sometimes several
metres, but a very vulnerable, living skin.”
Soils simultaneously produce food, store carbon and purify water, he said, so they are “at least as important” as the climate and above-ground biodiversity crises.
“If you’re losing the top soil through
bad treatment and then erosion,
then it takes thousands of years
until the soil is produced again.”
Microbial species are essential for turning waste into nutrients, but Eisenhauer said an estimated 99% of them had yet to be studied by scientists. He also said that, by number, four out of every five animals on Earth are tiny soil worms called nematodes, yet only a tiny fraction of these species have been recorded.
In a foreword to the report, Qu Dongyu, the FAO head, and Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the head of the UN convention on biological diversity, said:
“Our wellbeing and the livelihoods of
human societies are highly dependent
on biodiversity [but while] there is in-
creasing attention on the importance of
above-ground biodiversity, less attention is
being paid to the biodiversity beneath our feet.”
The main causes of damage to soils are intensive agriculture, with excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics killing soil organisms and leaving it prone to erosion. The destruction of forests and natural habitats to create farmland also degrades soil, particularly affecting the symbiotic fungi that are important in helping trees and plants grow. Rising global temperatures, with increasing droughts and wildfires, are another factor, but scientists remain uncertain about how all the different drivers interact.
The most important action is to protect existing healthy soils from damage, the scientists said, while degraded soils can be restored by growing a diverse range of plants. Inoculating barren soil with healthy earth may also help it recover. Eisenhauer said …
“Certainly there’s hope that we can
make soils healthy again. I think a
lot depends on what we eat. Do we
need to eat these massive amounts
of cheap meat, for example? Can we
rely more on plant-derived calories?
I think this is a massive factor.”
More than 80% of the world’s farmland is used to raise and feed cattle and other livestock, but these provide only 18% of all calories consumed.
In 2014 the FAO’s Maria-Helena Semedo said that if the rate of degradation continued then all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years.
While much remains to be discovered about soil biodiversity and how to help it thrive, Eisenhauer said the new report collating for the first time what is known was important.
“Raising awareness is a first critical
step, bringing soil more into the pub-
lic and political discussions. Most of
the decisions about, for example, pro-
tected areas are not based on soils.”
• • • • • • • •
When we began to develop the Garden Atriums sustainable community, we bought a small abandoned farm that, probably due to the chemicals used, was devoid of all animal and bird life. Except for a few pines and a three- cedar windbreak on the north side of the farm house, the land was dead.
As we built our Garden Atrium homes, we first stripped away the topsoil from where the new home was being built. Then we replaced it in places on the site where we wanted to grow things – trees, shrubs, vegetables, etc. We used the same process as we built each new home. Other than hardwood mulch around landscape plantings, and organic soil amendments in the vegetable garden, we’ve used no chemicals whatever.
Our on-site, walkways and drives are permeable, which does mean weeds may appear. Even that is controlled with a concoction of vinegar and salt.
The site now has a thriving ecosystem, with an abundance of wildlife, birdlife, and plant life. Our homeowners enjoy healthier – toxin-free and oxygenated – air. In fact, it’s a little spooky as to how quickly nature can restore a dead site to an ecologically thriving site when given half a chance.
Asking D, the entity my wife channels, for comments …
“We have some suggestions:
- “As the report states, inasmuch as 80% of the farmland, which is used for livestock, provides only 18% of the calories we need, we need to eat less meat, eat more vegetables. Transition gradually. For example, once a week try a meal with a new vegetarian recipe.
- “Use no chemicals on your gardens and lawn. Chemicals deplete soil nutrients and kill beneficial insects in the soil, killing the soil’s viability.
- “Build compost from food and yard waste. You can buy a barrel in which to put both. When it eventually produces a sweet smell and has the same color and a fluffy consistency, then put the compost in your gardens and even spread it on lawns. It builds the soil, so it’s stronger. And it provides nutrients for whatever you’re putting it on, so you don’t need the chemicals.
- “Plant densely on areas that tend to erode; a lot of soil is washed away or blown away in areas that can erode.
“Every human has the responsibility to protect soil near their home. You’ll help deal with climate change issues. And you’ll enjoy greater nutritional quality from your garden produce, and greater beauty for your home.”