The fate of our planet depends on the soil, our “silent ally”, according to a UN scientist

Ronald Vargas is a world-leading soil scientist who has devoted more than 25 years to natural resource management with a particular focus on sustainable soil management. He is Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and a passionate advocate for the importance of food security and nutrition.

Healthy soils fuel the entire food chain, from the food we eat to the water we drink and even the air we breathe. Maintaining and restoring their natural balance requires urgent action for the survival of any living organism.

This is clear to me, having invested over 20 years of my professional life trying to explain why protecting such a vital resource and its ecosystems is an SOS climate emergency – because preserving our soils is like make sure we have enough life support machines in our hospitals. .

I followed last month’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland with a mixture of interest and expectation. The result was not as expected despite all the awareness of reducing emissions. It is our collective duty to fight climate change.

To the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Global Soil Partnership – we position soil health and the adoption of sustainable soil management practices as one of the viable solutions to at least reduce emissions from the agricultural sector. A sector that represents about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that soils are the largest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet and hold enormous power to mitigate non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, they have a role to play.

Soils take thousands of years to form, which means that protecting them is essential to our very existence. About a quarter of all animal species on Earth live under our feet and provide all kinds of nutrients, which means that soils simultaneously produce food, store carbon and purify water.

Soil has the potential to sequester 2.04 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents, or 34% of global agricultural emissions. Simply put, soils have enormous potential to store CO2, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere with adverse consequences. If soils are managed sustainably, the carbon they already store will be retained.

It’s important to keep carbon underground

By increasing organic carbon in our soils, croplands and pastures, we can increase the fertility and productivity of the land. There are currently around three times more carbon in our soil than in the atmosphere and we want to keep it there.

Tackling climate change is not just about mitigating and reducing emissions, it is already happening – so we must also learn to adapt to the changes it brings.

Earlier this month, we celebrated UN World Soil Day. Why do we feel the need to put a date in our diaries every year to highlight the importance of soils? The answer is simple. Because the destiny of our planet, its ecosystems, its natural resources, its biodiversity and its inhabitants depends on the state of its soils.

Our soils, quite literally, not only directly or indirectly provide us with most of our food, but are also at the heart of the planet’s survival system. Soil is an integral part of the carbon, water and nutrient cycles that allow organisms of all sizes to survive and thrive.

This is why we need to think more deeply about the ground under our feet.

What are the threats to the soil?

When plants and animals decompose, their bodies release nutrients into the soil for subsequent generations of organisms to use and recycle. Soils store, filter and purify our water, helping to protect against flash floods by absorbing rainwater.

By acting as a carbon store, they help offset the shocks of climate change and spare us some of the worst potential results of human-caused carbon emissions.

But our soils are threatened by human activities like deep plowing, which breaks through and destroys the natural soil structure, or the overuse of agrochemicals that kill the biodiversity we need to balance ecosystems.

The FAO estimates that a third of our agricultural soils have been damaged over the past 40 years. And, if we don’t act now, this trend will continue.

Soil degradation causes poverty by triggering rural exodus. Food security, adaptation to climate change and even sustainable development are compromised when people are forced to flee because they cannot cultivate their land for food or to earn an income.

I am based in Italy but have lived in Kenya, Somalia and the Netherlands and was born in Bolivia. In each of these countries, I have seen soils degraded by negative human interventions, leaving them vulnerable to erosion by extreme weather conditions. I have seen soil seeping into rivers and the sea.

What can we do to keep the world’s soils healthy?

This year we dedicated World Soil Day to salt-affected soils, which occupy about 834 million hectares of the world’s total land area. The main threat is that salinization is a growing concern due to unsustainable agricultural practices, largely linked to irrigation with poor quality water and seawater intrusion. Salinization dramatically reduces productivity soils and the provision of ecosystem services by soils.

Solutions are in sight. We need to adopt good practices that are country-based and result from a combination of scientific and local knowledge – restoring balance and harmony to our soils.

It’s a daily job to make the voice of the soils, our silent ally, heard. It is time to increase investments in sustainable soil management to have healthy soils that function as agents of change in the face of all global challenges.

From climate change, food insecurity, pollution, land degradation and biodiversity loss to poverty – this is what we face if we don’t act now.

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