World Soil Day Celebrates Healthy, Food Secure Future

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 September, which happens to be World Soil Day. In 2014, the United Nations designated this day to remind us of the importance of healthy soil and encourage agriculture that manages our soil sustainably.

They chose December 5th because it was the birthday of the much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. He served as that country’s head of state for over 70 years.

The king was an enthusiastic sponsor of establishing a day to honour our soil. He learned about the idea from a proposal from the International Union of Soil Sciences in 2002.

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 information has come to light since we published that story.

Underlying this year’s chosen theme is the necessity of maintaining viable ecosystems and humanity’s own well-being through soil management. The greatest threat to our soil 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 us all.

The FAO wants World Soil Day to remind us about those hardworking fellow organisms living underground. Those microscopic bacteria, fascinating fungi and wiggly earthworms all support indispensable processes supporting our biosphere.

More than 25% of the world’s biodiversity lives in our soil. Despite this, scientists have only studied about 1% of the microcosm beneath our feet. There are more organisms in a spoonful of healthy soil than Earth’s entire human population.

The FAO has released its first-ever soil report, marking this year’s World Soil Day. They’ve called it State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity. Its authorsinclude over 300 soil scientists from around the world in its preparation process.

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 decline in biodiversity is a major global threat to our soil’s health in many parts of the world. It sets out the state of knowledge on soil biodiversity, the hazards it faces, and the solutions that soil biodiversity can provide to humanity.

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 their habitat because of their biological activity. Their life processes convert complex molecules into simpler ones for plants to absorb and process.

It’s hard to imagine such 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 above ground.

It’s worth noting 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.

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 complex network of relationships.

People used to dismiss the importance of soil biodiversity. They realized that many different species were living in the soil. Still, they argued that the environment didn’t really need all of them. A lot of them seemed to have the same function.

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 a range of functions.

The connections are interwoven and elaborate. They’re also self-reinforcing and self-regulating, at least until we humans disrupt them.

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, regardless of our food choices. 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.

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 future needs. Soil biodiversity seems to be the solution to adding nutrients to the soil sustainably for future generations.

In the past, when soil scientists thought about the health effects of our soil, they often focused on which soil-based germs caused diseases. Modern researchers are finding that most of the micro-organisms living in the Earth are highly beneficial to human health.

Our soil’s living things prevent erosion, filter our water, break down pollutants, and capture carbon from the atmosphere. 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 spiritual 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 meaning.

Many of us have become disconnected from our soil and the food it provides us. 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 explains at some length how soil biodiversity supports many of 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.

Originally published at http://daretoknow.ca on December 6, 2020.

Enjoying my Freedom 55 while blogging about science and delivering selective business to business writing services.

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