According to a new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the future of global soils looks “bleak” without action to halt their degradation.
Soils store as much carbon as all plants above ground and are therefore vital in the fight against climate change. However, the report- compiled by 300 scientists- finds that there are “major gaps” in knowledge about their importance and how best to ensure they remain healthy.
What is Happening?
- The report describes the worsening state of global soils as at least as important as climate change and destruction of the above-ground natural world. It takes thousands of years for soils to form, so their urgent protection and restoration is vital. “Soil organisms play a crucial role in our everyday life by working to sustain life on Earth,” said Ronald Vargas, of the FAO and the secretary of the Global Soil Partnership.
Prof Richard Bardgett, of the University of Manchester and lead author of the report, says, “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 proportion of the Earth’s surface has been degraded as a result of human activities.”
He adds, “People should be worried. If things carry on as they are, the outlook is bleak, unquestionably. But I think it’s not too late to introduce measures now.”
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- Since the Industrial Revolution, about 135 billion tonnes of soil has been lost from farmland.
- Soil organisms drive processes that produce food, purify soil and water and preserve both human wellbeing and the health of the biosphere. Soils are also one of the main global reservoirs of biodiversity, with more than 40% of living organisms’ life cycles in terrestrial ecosystems associated with soils.
- Since early 1900, many drugs and vaccines have come from soil organisms, from penicillin to bleomycin used for treating cancer and amphotericin for fungal infections. Soil biodiversity has the potential to provide new drugs to combat resistant microorganisms. Further, healthy soils help to mitigate the risk of foodborne illness by boosting plant defenses against infections. For example, the harmful bacterium Listeria monocytogenes is found in low concentration in many agricultural soils, but its pathogenicity (ability to cause disease) depends on the richness and diversity of soil microbial communities, as well as soil type, pH and other soil-related factors.
- Soil is easily damaged by intensive farming practices, forest destruction, pollution and global warming. Excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics kill soil organisms and leave the soil prone to erosion.
- The scientists say that we need to protect existing healthy soils from damage and start to restore degraded soils by growing a diverse range of plants.
Professor Nico Eisenhauer of Leipzig University, another lead author of the report, says, “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, but more recent research suggests a much lower rate of loss.