Global soils

Soil is a declining resource for a variety of reasons such as conventional agricultural practices and overexploitation of forests. Soil loss and erosion – half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years – has a huge impact on our ability to produce food and, due to erosion, around 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in the last 40 years. Tipped as an environmental problem second only to population growth, sustainably managing our soils should be a global priority.

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Click here to download a copy of the report

On the 4th of December, the Montpellier Panel published its latest report ‘No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils’, this time focusing on the importance of soils to global food security. The report explains the contribution of soil to alleviating many of today’s pressing challenges is overlooked. The report finds that soils have become politically and physically neglected, triggering land degradation and recommends the following action be prioritised:

  1. Strengthen political support for sustainable land management
  2. Increase financial support for investment in land and soil management.
  3. Improve transparency for land and soil management.
  4. Attribute a value to land degradation.
  5. Start a ‘Big Data’ Revolution on soils.
  6. Create incentives, especially secure land rights.
  7. Build on existing knowledge and resources.
  8. Build soil science capacity in Africa.
  9. Embrace integrated soil management (ISM).
  10. Climate smart soil helps agricultural systems become more resilient.

And the Montpellier Panel are not the only global institution concerning themselves with soils. The G8 Food Security Working Group, Healthy Soil for Future Generations, which includes individuals from FAO, the World Bank and the Global Forum on Agriculture Research as well as soil experts, met this year to discuss threats to global soil resources. In particular discussions focused on how G8 countries can reach the goal of “zero net land degradation by 2020” as well as how we can take stock of current soil resources and the future soil fertility and health we will need to serve our food systems.  The Community of Practice for Conservation Agriculture (CA-CoP) created by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promotes “Conservation Agriculture” (CA) as a means of sustainably intensifying production while protecting soil resources on farms of all sizes.

With 2015 having been declared the International Year of Soils by the 68th UN General Assembly, the importance of soils for food security and ecosystem health is growing. During this year UN agencies will be trying to raise awareness about the fundamental roles of soils for human life, food security, sustainable development and in mitigating climate change as well as promote effective and appropriate policies that protect and sustainably manage soil resources. These actions will feed into the Sustainable Development Goal agenda as well as spurring action to try to build capacities in collecting, measuring and monitoring soil information around the world. An events calendar for activities relating to 2015 can be viewed here. World Soil Day, on the 5th December 2014 will also go some way in raising the profile of soils and building international awareness.

The Global Soil Partnership, acting as secretariat to the International Year of Soils, has two main objectives – to act as an international governance body advocating soils in global change dialogues and decision making processes, and to help coordinate and generate partnerships around soil in order strengthen and consolidate efforts. There is currently little investment in soils, limited research and knowledge generation and soils are generally seen in policy as of lower priority. Additionally, and making the challenge of sustainably managing global soil resources harder, data on soils around the world is fragmented, at times outdated, diverse and thus hard to compare as well as difficult to access and use. Past global soil mapping exercises such as the FAO/UNESCO Soil Map of the World, Harmonized World Soil Database and others, have been relatively crude or are now out of date but new initiatives aim to bring new scientific methods to the mapping process.

A global consortium has been formed, as an initiative of the Digital Soil Mapping Working Group of the International Union of Soil Sciences IUSS, which aims to create new digital soil map of the world.  State-of-the-art and emerging technologies will be used to map soils and predict their properties at a fine resolution. Additionally this mapping will be combined with expert interpretation of results and applications to guide decision-makers in tackling food insecurity, climate change and environmental degradation.  The Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) is developing “continent-wide digital soil maps for sub-Saharan Africa using new types of soil analysis and statistical methods, and conducting agronomic field trials in selected sentinel sites”. This process includes the collation of existing and new data from remote sensing imagery and crowd sourced ground observations as well as capacity development for this type of large-scale soil mapping, which will cover some 17.5 million km2 and 42 countries.

International prioritisation of soil in policy and in research is critical to global environmental problems but also to the individual farmer and consumer. Soil mapping can help policy makers make better decisions but, if at a high enough resolution, it may also help farmers. By understanding their soil they may be more able to maximise the profitability of their land and be more informed when deciding how best to manage that land. As the Montpellier Panel Report states that ‘soil is the cornerstone of food security and agricultural development and its care, restoration, enhancement, and conservation should intuitively become a major global priority’.

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