Imagine a new resource is discovered that is easy to use as the best ever medium for growing food. It makes sure we do not get flooded, cleans our drinking water, manages wastes and stores carbon from the atmosphere.
What excitement and even disbelief such a wonderful discovery would create! But this resource already exists and has done for a very long time – it is called soil.
This living system really does deliver food, flood control, clean water, carbon capture and much more. It is a critical but backstage component in the systems that support humanity and all terrestrial life. And it is set to become even more important as we work our way through the challenges of increased population and climate change, with global food production maybe reducing by up to a fifth.
Soil has to be at the heart of policy – local to national to global. This is why the United Nations has adopted the 5th December as World Soil Day, announced that 2015 will be the “International Year of Soils” and has set up a Global Soil Partnership.
If we could take a shrinking potion like Alice in Wonderland and become so small that we could move around in soil and see its wonders, it would be so much easier to recognise and appreciate its importance.
The problem is that the tiny scale at which soil works is beyond what we can observe and that makes it appear dead and boring, when in fact the opposite is true. It is full of microbial life and highly dynamic. The worms and insects we sometimes see in it are just a fraction of its biodiversity. It’s a vast biological engine – fuelled by plant remains and working hard to support life above ground.
So if soil is so important and so wonderful, how healthy is it and how is it being looked after? The answer is depressing. Urban sprawl is consuming soil around growing megacities. Even many resilient temperate soils in Northern Europe are being degraded by erosion and intensive use. More fragile soils in the tropics and elsewhere are being destroyed by inappropriate land use.
The good news is that reversing the trend does not require new technology – the solution is as old as the hills, although confirmed by modern soil science. It is all a question of balance. Soil management has to be embedded in common sense about land capability, meaning that the best and most versatile soils should be conserved for food production and fragile soils must not be degraded by excessive tillage, grazing or trampling.
And most of all, because soil is a living system that needs feeding, agricultural systems must ensure a fair return of organic matter in to the soil.
These are just some of the priorities that soil scientists are promoting and that Governments everywhere need to make their own, so that this wonderful resource can go on working for us all. Soil has been a Cinderella and it is time for it to be centre stage at the policy ball.