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5 December 2021

Our future depends on How we take care of our soil’s health

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

Soil – the soul of the planet and its greater ignorance

“There has never been a more urgent need to revive damaged ecosystems than now. Ecosystems support all life on Earth. The healthier our ecosystems are, the healthier the planet – and its people.” The UN has declared the current decade as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. We all must contribute to this novel cause, for our own sake and the forthcoming generations, as well as for the healthy existence of the greater animal kingdom.

Soil is the central component of terrestrial ecosystems. It vastly controls the quality of others (i.e., air and water) and does everything, from supplying food and water to providing shelters to its inhabitants sizing large elephants and tall trees to microscopic bacteria; for everyone. It also has a greater influence on the aquatic ecosystems through water, sediment and nutrient transport, purification of contaminants, for example. In a word, SOIL serves as the soul of the planet and governs everything in and on it. Unfortunately, many of us undermine its contribution which has been recognized in recent years, for example, by the former FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva “The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production.”

According to the FAO’s ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021’ report, about 800 million people were facing hunger in 2020 who mostly live in Asia (418 million), Africa (282 million), and Latin America and the Caribbean (60 million). Also, about 30% of the global population (2.4 billion) are facing moderate or severe food insecurity. Like the hunger data, half of them live in Asia, one-third in Africa, and one-tenth in Latin America and the Caribbean. The population has increased by 11% over the past 10 years (7.0 billion 2010 to 7.8 billion in 2020) and the prevalence of undernourishment in the world has changed from 9.2% in 2010 to 9.9% in 2020 or to be rational, excluding the global pandemic effect, to 8.4% in 2019. This data emphasizes that what we are doing over the past decade has contributed very little to our battle against food security and malnutrition.

Beyond food production, healthy soils can fight back climate change through carbon sequestration above and below ground, store the much-needed water in the soil profile for the dry period, can recharge groundwater faster during heavy rainfall, and reduce flood intensity. Nonetheless, what could have been a savior has become a source of problems thanks to deforestation, intensive agriculture, and unplanned urbanization on productive soils. More than one-third of Soil’s health has declined globally, and the agricultural systems became the 2nd largest source of greenhouse gas emission. So, we have a huge task ahead. We must formulate and act upon new and creative methods that would break the boundary of traditional knowledge and practices. At the same time, it would improve the ability to halt soil degradation and improve soil’s health and overall functionality of the ecosystems.

Focusing on subsoil management: could it shift the tide?

Soil hardening (compaction) below the plow depth (subsoil) is one of the main barriers against sustainable food production and battling climate change. It limits soil volume for root growth, root uptake of water and nutrients that causes long-lasting reductions in crop yield. Also, compaction retards air and water flow between soil layers that hinder groundwater recharge and increase surface runoff, flooding incidence, and associated soil erosion. Compaction-induced waterlogging often leads to an anoxic condition in soil, followed by the emission of excess greenhouse gases. In the past few decades, a million hectares of highly productive arable land has degraded worldwide due to compaction and the Eurasian region alone suffered from yield losses by about 50 million tons and became into net sources of greenhouse gases, for example. However, a little good news is researchers are working on modifying crop genes so that they can break through the compacted soil layer(s) and get nutrients and water from there. If successful, this initiative would minimize the yield gaps. But it’s time to think beyond our food. We need a holistic approach to the battle against climate extremes and to build healthy ecosystems so that all forms of life thrive sustainably. On the other hand, loosening the subsoil with the available technologies is an expensive, short-term, and more carbon-emitting solution. Therefore, we need a solution that is affordable, eco-friendly, and provides long-term solutions.

Cultivation makes soil organisms vulnerable to predators

Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

Organic matter (OM) addition in arable soil is undeniably the most effective way to improve soil health and biodiversity. Farmers add OM to the soil surface and then mix within the plow layer. This has been practiced throughout history. However, such traditional practice is barely improving the ongoing effort of carbon sequestration and sustainable food production. Besides, frequent tillage operations in intensive agricultural systems regularly destroy the habitats of soil organisms that maintain healthy & functional soil ecosystems. Such a problem could be solved by adding OM below the plow depth and as a thick layer, instead of mixing it up. It would provide all the documented benefits of OM and at the same time, could act as a buffer to subsoil compaction and the soil organisms would find a safehouse just below the plow-depth. A group of researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences has tested this approach on a pilot scale and found a profound effect on overall soil functionality, including soil structure, plant growth, water storage, and abundance of soil organisms. This practice could be a great solution, especially in arid and semi-arid regions where water scarcity, salt accumulation, and soil erosion are major problems. But we lack sufficient evidence and proper equipment to do the job.

Economic growth Vs. Ecological growth: Saving the soil beyond the horizon

We must move out of the box of technological solutions coupled with economic growth. Instead, we should rethink the driving causes of the problems. The first thing we should prioritize is to assess the capacity of a certain ecosystem to host people and other organisms at its current and at pristine and/or optimal conditions and then move forward to attain that threshold. Also, we need to adopt the best available practices that are proven undoubtedly to be environmentally friendly, such as waste sorting at source and their proper recycling. More than a billion tons of organic wastes from households and sanitation systems are wasted every year. The safe return of those materials to the arable field could protect millions of hectares from further degradation and boost soil health. Conservation farming, agroforestry, permaculture, etc., are a few good examples that serve well to the local community, and we need expansions of such practices. Nevertheless, for the ever-growing population, we have limited options but to continue intensive agriculture along with the best practices.

Finally, at the COP26 World Leaders Summit Opening Ceremony, UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged the greater risk of adopting technology for personal comfort and financial gain without foreseeing its long-term consequences, “Because it was here in Glasgow, 250 years ago, that James Watt came up with a machine that was powered by steam, that was produced by burning coal. And yes, my friends, we’ve brought you to the very place where the doomsday machine began to tick. And even though for 200 years, the industrialized countries were in complete ignorance of the problem that they were creating,” At the same event he also stressed to rely on technology to solve the crisis “We can get real on coal, cars, cash, and trees. We have the technology to deactivate that ticking doomsday device.” The very similar views exist among most, if not all, the participants of cop26. At this point, I would like to put forward a few questions to the readers –

  • Who would guarantee that today’s technologies would not cause similar catastrophic events to the soil, water, or plants in the next 50 or 100 years?
  • How could we achieve ecological sustainability by creating never-sleeping cities and wrapping everything with energy-demanding technologies?
  • Why can’t we change ourselves instead and limit our consumption and behavioral pattern?

Creating a healthy and sustainable ecosystem does not require too much but a tiny and regular contribution from all.

Written by Mohammed Masud Parvage (PhD., Soil Science), intern at SEI.