Crossroads blog | 16 Jun, 2021

Soils: our most valuable environmental asset

Fertile soils produce 95% of our food, regulate water cycles, and mitigate climate change by storing carbon, but unsustainable human activity is degrading soils at alarming rates. With global food demand set to double by 2050 and only nine harvests before the 2030 deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals,

we must move from short-term thinking about maximising yields to longer-term planning that invests in protecting our most valuable environmental asset; writes Dr Joao Campari of WWF, an IUCN Member organisation.

Soil is the fabric beneath our feet. It provides for us in many ways people don’t realise. Fertile soils produce 95% of all food, supporting crop growth and livestock grazing. It gives us all the timber, pulp and paper we rely on for housing, packaging and currency, among other things. But soil isn’t just a factor of production; it’s an environmental asset. It stores 80% of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems and supports vital waterways. If we are to preserve all the ecosystem services of our soils we must shift our thinking and start treating them as our most valuable asset; an asset that sustains life on Earth, including our own.

Soil isn’t just a factor of production, it’s an environmental asset; an asset that sustains life on Earth, including our own.

Tomorrow is World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, an important day to remind ourselves that less than 25% of the Earth’s land surface has escaped the substantial impacts of human activity. By 2050 experts estimate this will fall to less than 10%.

It is also an important day to start taking action, especially given 23% of all land is no longer productive.  Agricultural land is deeply affected. 52% of all farmland is degraded or disused and carbon stored in agricultural soils has decreased due to unsustainable practices, for instance by 50% in Tanzania. Since carbon doesn’t simply disappear, it is not difficult to understand where it is now: in the atmosphere contributing to climate change. As the global population grows, demand for land and pressure on soils will only increase unless we tackle how it is currently used and managed.

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Prairie roots and soil profile in healthy grasslands. South Dakota, USA

WWF US / Clay Bolt

Based on current consumption trends, technology, dietary choices, and wastefulness, a growing population will require twice as much food by 2050. However, soil erosion can lead to a 50% reduction in crop yields. This will be exacerbated by climate change. A study calculated that average global yields of maize and soybeans in the 30-year period from 1981 to 2010 were 4.1 and 4.5% lower respectively, than they would be in a world that wasn’t warming.

If by 2030 all of us are to enjoy decent lives then we must agree that as we improve our lives, we must also invest in the rehabilitation of our soils.

There are 3.2 billion people living on land degraded through human activities. This degradation doesn’t just negatively impact them, it also indirectly affects everyone else on the planet. If by 2030 all of us are to enjoy decent lives – which we can and we should – then we must agree that as we improve our lives, we must also invest in the rehabilitation of our soils.

This requires a fundamental shift in how we think about soil. If not managed correctly, soil’s ability to provide for us will be finite. Soil is one of our most valuable environmental assets and we need to start treating it as such. There must be a complete asset inventory, mapping the value and state of our soils and the services they provide around the world. Some mapping has been done, but we need to combine global imaging with local insights to create truly comprehensive databases. Importantly, we need to assess the projected state of these assets so that we can best manage them.

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Cracked soil and blue sky. Ilha do Caju, Brazil

Adriano Gambarini / WWF Brazil

To sustainably manage soils, there needs to be a long-term plan in place; not just an immediate plan on how to extract value from the soil or an initial cost for cultivating the land. Instead, we need to adopt landscape-based approaches that integrate agroecological and other regenerative approaches to ensure the long-term value of the soils is protected, and the levels of service to maintain their productivity are understood and implemented. This is key. We must move from short-term thinking about maximising yields, with little consideration for medium- and long-term investments to avoid degradation, to planning in an integrated manner that accounts for the many environmental and social benefits healthy soils provide. These include: regulating the water cycle and filtering water; mitigating climate change by storing carbon; enhancing ecosystem, land and agricultural productivity; supporting livelihoods.

There are just nine harvests between now and 2030, the deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This leaves just nine chances to make changes.

All IUCN Members should urgently adopt this thinking at scale. There are just nine harvests between now and 2030, the deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This leaves just nine chances for farmers, who are our primary land resource stewards, to make changes. The coming months present us with unique opportunities to start treating soil as an asset. The UN Food Systems Summit will take place in September and already we are seeing an action area emerging for a global soils hub, focused on restoring degraded lands and rehabilitating degraded soils. Although the Summit can be a catalyst for action, the protection, sustainable management and restoration of soils should be built into agreements to enable the delivery of the Rio Conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD); Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

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Islands of native vegitation are connected by swales that follow variations across the landscape designed to help maintain soil, and manage erosion and flooding. Cruz Alta, Santa Fe, Argentina

Jason Houston / WWF US

Countries are beginning to implement more responsible land governance, build resilient agroecosystems, and improve the management of drivers caused by demand for goods and services, supply chains, and risk. Likewise, food and agri-businesses must take responsibility for their supply chains and how food is produced. Farmers need support and incentives to manage soils effectively. Payment for ecosystem services, investment in innovation, research, and technology must be unlocked if we are to succeed.

We all benefit from the services soils provide, and it will take collective efforts to protect them. Saving our oceans is capturing public attention, and rightly so. Now we must ensure that the same effort goes to saving our soils. A first step could be for us to consider soil and its services as an asset, and start treating it as such.

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