World Soil Day: Caring for the Planet Starts from the Ground

12 December 2017 Christopher Johns, Research Manager, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Since 2012, World Soil Day has been held annually on 5 December to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and advocating for the sustainable management of soil resources.
  • In December 2013 the United Nations General Assembly responded to a request from the Food and Agriculture Organisation by designating 5 December 2014 as the first official World Soil Day.
  • The date of 5 December was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, of Thailand, who officially sanctioned the event.
  • The Global Soil Partnership is dedicating World Soil Day 2017 to the theme “Caring for the Planet starts from the Ground” to bring attention to the importance of soil and the problem of soil degradation.
  • Despite the essential role that soil plays, there is a worldwide increase in soil degradation due to inappropriate management practices, population pressure, unsustainable intensive agriculture, climate change and inadequate governance.

Summary

Since 2012, World Soil Day has been celebrated on 5 December to promote the importance of soils as a critical natural system and a vital contributor to human health and wellbeing. In 2013 World Soil Day, celebrated on 5 December, was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. In 2017 the official theme of World Soil Day was ‘caring for the planet starts from the ground’. Caring for the planet and its environment means caring for the soil. It emphasises the role soil can play in the eradication of hunger, improving health, providing clean water, mitigating climate change, preserving biodiversity and reducing forced migration.

The Global Soil Carbon Map was also launched on World Soil Day 2017. This tool provides a comprehensive process that supports the development and empowerment of national capacities to build national soil information systems.

Analysis

Background

The International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS), in 2002, adopted a resolution proposing the 5th of December as World Soil Day to promote and celebrate the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system and as a vital contributor to human wellbeing. Under the leadership of the Kingdom of Thailand, and within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership (GSP), the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) subsequently supported the formal establishment of World Soil Day as a global awareness raising platform. The FAO Conference, in June 2013, unanimously endorsed World Soil Day and requested official adoption at the 68th UN General Assembly. In December 2013, the 68th UN General Assembly declared 5 December as the World Soil Day and designated 5 December 2014 as the first official World Soil Day.

World Soils Day 2014 was themed on the statement ‘The soils community could really contribute to the efforts of food security, hunger eradication, climate change adaptation, poverty reduction and sustainable development’. Soil specialists, politicians, leading experts and top officials from across the globe convened at FAO headquarters to emphasize the importance of soils beyond the soil science community.

In 2015, the FAO was nominated to implement the International Year of Soil.  World Soils Day that year focused on the theme ‘healthy soils for a healthy life’. Special focus was placed on increasing awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions. Soils are a critical component of the natural system and a vital contributor to human wellbeing through its contribution to food, water and energy security and mitigation of biodiversity loss. It was celebrated by the global community of 60,000 soil scientists charged with the responsibility of generating and communicating soil knowledge for the common good.

2016 was declared as the International Year of Pulses by the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Accordingly, the FAO and the GSP dedicated World Soil Day 2016 to the theme Soils and Pulses: Symbiosis for life, in celebration of the interaction between the International Year of Soils 2015 and the International Year of Pulses 2016. The theme concentrated on the message that there are various ways in which the so called “strategic alliance” between soils and pulses contributes to forging more sustainable food and agriculture systems. A book ‘Soils & Pulses: Symbiosis for life’, published as part of the celebration, presented decision-makers and practitioners with scientific facts and technical recommendations for managing the interdependence between soils and pulses.

The central theme of the World Soil Day 2017 ‘Caring for the planet starts from the ground’

Soil, like air and water, is critical to life on earth. Caring for the planet and its environment means caring for its soils. Soils are incredibly resilient, but they are also fragile and can be easily damaged or lost. If we are really committed for a better future for all of us and the next generations, let’s start working from the ground, our soils. Unlocking the full potential of soils to not only support food production, but also to sequester more carbon, store and supply more clean water, maintain biodiversity and increase environmental resilience to a changing climate, requires the sustainable management of soils.

Soils are essential to achieve food security and eradicate hunger. ‘Soils are the foundation of agriculture; it is where food begins.’ Ninety-five per cent of food is produced in our soils. Without healthy soils we wouldn’t be able to grow our food. By 2050, the global population will grow to more than nine billion, compelling farmers to produce 49 per cent more food under a climate which is increasingly changing and difficult to predict. Without healthy soils, we will not be able to face this challenge and sustain human development. Furthermore, soil is a non-renewable resource in the human lifetime; we can’t replace all the healthy soil we lose. It can take up to 1000 years to form 1cm of soil.  Soil preservation is essential for food security and to ensure our sustainable future.

Soils are essential to improve nutrition. ‘Good health starts with nutrition. If we feed the soil, it will feed us.’ Food security and nutrition rely on healthy soils which are the foundation of our food systems. Nearly 80 per cent of the average calorie intake per person comes from crops directly grown in the soil. Nearly all plant nutrients are taken up from the soil and need to be present in sufficient quantity and availability in the soil. The nutrient supply to our crops and food relies in the first place on the nutrients present in soils. Two million people still suffer from lack of nutritional deficiencies. Soils are deteriorating worldwide, becoming less fertile. They provide less nutrients to plants, leading to serious nutrient deficiencies in crops, with direct consequences on human beings.

Soils are essential to provide clean water. ‘The water we drink is purified by soils. Let’s minimize contamination and give our soils only what they need.’ Prevention of soil contamination remains the best way to ensure healthy soils and food safety. Healthy soils can filter toxic materials, like heavy metals, pesticides, salts, sediments and viruses from freshwater resources, preventing them from building up to toxic levels and becoming pollutants. An astute and integrated use of chemical and organic fertilisers prevents the accumulation of nutrients in soils and their leakage into ground and fresh water, causing pollution of our water supply. Maintaining the filter function of soils is important for everyone who enjoys a fresh cup of clean water.

Soils are essential to mitigate and adapt to climate change. ‘Healthy soils are our silent allies to combat climate change.’ Soils constitute the largest organic carbon pool on the Earth. Healthy soils can potentially store three times as much organic carbon as the atmosphere and the plant world. Healthy soils contribute to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content. Healthy soils improve resilience to floods and droughts and the impacts of a changing climate. Healthy soils with a high organic matter content can also store large amounts of water, essential during drought periods. Soils can also act as a sponge when rains are limited.

Soils are essential to preserve biodiversity. ‘Soils provide one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on earth, hosting a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity.’ There are more living individual organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on earth. Soils biodiversity keeps soils alive. Agricultural diversification and proximity to forested zones increase soil biodiversity.

Soils are essential to reduce forced migration. ‘Without healthy soils people can’t produce their food and are forced to migrate to feed themselves and their families.’ More than 10 million people have abandoned their homelands due to environmental issues, including drought, soil erosion, desertification and deforestation. Avoiding soil degradation and coping with long-term droughts can, therefore, change or prevent unwanted human migration events.

The Global Soil Organic Carbon Map

The FAO launched the first Global Soil Organic Carbon map (GSOCmap) on World Soil Day 2017. The GSOCmap is not just a map! It is also a comprehensive process that supports the development and empowerment of national capacities to build national soil information systems.

The GSP launched a global endeavour to develop the GSOCmap by the end of 2017, in support of sustainable development goals. The quality of soil carbon information at global level is still limited because much existing national information has not yet been shared. A precise and reliable global view on soil organic carbon (SOC) is needed under different UN conventions, such as the UN Convention on Climate Change and Desertification (UNCCD), but especially as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). At national level, such data can be used as reference soil carbon stocks, with the aim to refine national greenhouse gas inventories, and to assess the sensitivity of soils to degradation and climate change.

The global soil carbon map consists of national SOC maps, developed as one km soil grids, covering a depth of 0 to 30 cm. A generic GSOC mapping guideline has been developed, which provides definitions and methodological options. The formulae to calculate national soil carbon stocks follow the good practice guidance by the International Panel on Climate Change. Digital soil mapping is recommended for the spatial mapping of soil properties. This includes the national SOC maps.

The global soil carbon mapping programme was initiated during the preparations of the second meeting of the International Network of Soil Information Institutions. During this session, the mapping specifications and the detailed methodologies were discussed, and examples of national SOC maps presented. Since this meeting, GSP partners have shared details about their mapping approaches and the national contact partners. An intermediate progress assessment of GSOCmap was presented during the Global Symposium on Soil Organic Carbon held in Rome in March 2017. Developing the GSOCmap has been a challenge which required intensive collaboration among soil information institutions globally. Besides guideline and instructions, various specific training events support GSP partners to engage in the GSOCmap programme.

Conclusion

On 2 December 2017, as a lead in article to  World Soil Day, the New York Times published an article entitled Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet in its Sunday Review. The article is balanced and will written but its principle significance lies in the influence and readership of the New York Times and its reputation as the “newspaper of record”. The article demonstrates the role events such as World Soil Day are having in informing and changing public awareness on the importance and complexity of soil particularly when associated with climate change.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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