World Soil Day 2020 and its campaign, "Keep soil alive, Protect soil biodiversity", aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, fighting soil biodiversity loss, increasing soil awareness and encouraging governments, organizations, communities and individuals around the world to commit to proactively improving soil health.
Soil life is very complex. “Our soils consist of a myriad of organisms not visible with the naked eye, microorganisms such as nematodes, bacteria and fungi and macroorganisms like insects, mites or earthworms, to name but a few. A teaspoon of topsoil typically contains a vast range of different species and billions of microorganisms,” Age Tanja, Agronomic Developer at Koppert, states. These diverse organisms interact with one another, with plants and animals in the ecosystem, forming a complex web of activity. Plant roots, can also be considered as soil organisms in view of their symbiotic relationships and interactions with other soil components.
Soil is vital for life on earth. It regulates water regimes, carbon emission, ensures the nutrient uptake of plants, enhancing plant health, and it feeds us. Soil contains most of the nutrients for living creatures.
Human activity has a great impact on the earth’s fragile skin. While forests and plants protect the soil, millions of trees are cut down every year, and fields are cultivated in ways that often harm the soil. “Our cities are also growing rapidly. More and more land is constantly being transformed into urban areas. In these built up areas the soil is sealed with concrete, tiles and tarmac on which nothing can grow. Soil loses its function,” Age stresses. “Moreover, we lose valuable soil due to the overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. This practice kills a lot of good fungi and bacteria, which are present in the soil. It is important to realize that of all the microorganisms that exist, only a small percentage are pathogens. Most of the organisms are beneficial and crucial for the ecosystem. Overuse of chemical pesticides create misbalances in the soil; that is the reason why we have problems with certain plant diseases,” Age continues. Soil degradation negatively affects the livelihoods of millions of people. It is the decline in soil condition caused by its improper use or poor management, usually for agricultural, industrial or urban purposes, that now poses a serious environmental problem. Preventing soil degradation is crucial to our well-being.
Fertile soils are invaluable for our future and health. Adding organic matter to the soil nourishes the beneficial fungi and bacteria. Together, fungi, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa produce the soil food web. This web gives humans all the solutions for healthy food. Artificial fertilizers disrupt soil quality, affecting the nutrition plants extract from the soil. Adding organic matter to the soil instead of artificial fertilizers helps plants to become stronger and healthier. This effectively benefits human health and ensures food security. We need fertile soil more than ever. According to a recent FAO report, the available arable land will be reduced by half by 2050. Even now, 1 billion people go hungry every day. This number will increase rapidly if we do not distribute land fairly, increase yields, or protect its biodiversity.
In different parts of the world, governments, businesses, communities and individuals have different attitudes towards the soil. While some regions are consciously protecting it by applying sustainable agricultural practices and not overusing chemical pesticides and fertilizers, others continue to deplete the earth’s soil resources faster than the nutrients can be replenished. “We have to collect data and show growers that sustainable practices work. A change in mindset and an effective global governance approach is needed to support the adoption of sustainable land use and soil management practices.”
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face. Of the 17 goals, four are specifically related to soils: SDG 2, 3, 12 and 15. Goal 2, for instance, insists that we must produce food sustainably and use agricultural practices that improve soil quality. A large part of SDG 15 demands that we halt and reverse land degradation and put an end to biodiversity loss. It aims to combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world. The SDGs call for action from all countries to promote prosperity and protect the environment, although they are not legally binding.
The future of agricultural soil is not only in the hands of governments or growers. Education has a big impact on our future. We already know what knowledge needs to be applied to protect the soil. “Today’s youth is educated about sustainable solutions next to the conventional practices. That gives me hope that agricultural practices will change in the future and that we will keep soil alive and protect its biodiversity for many generations to come,” Age concludes.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development