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What do we know about soil biodiversity?

Soil is vital to human wellbeing, so we should be looking after it. Somehow it is hard to get past the dirt.

A quarter of all the animal species on Earth live beneath our feet. They scurry, feed and metabolise, moving nutrients around the soil. Plants take up these nutrients via their roots and build biomass called food. 

Soils also store as much carbon as all plants above ground and will be part of the solution to the climate emergency. 

The idea that soil is vital and that we know too little about the intricate workings of soil biology are the core messages of State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization Report published in 2020.

Heavy shit.

Quite literally for the report comes in at over 450 pages — not even the sFED team have read it from top to bottom.

The Summary for Policymakers is a little more accessible at 40 pages that we can condense down for you into a few key points (text from the summary report in italics, our shorthand version in bold)…

  • Soil organisms drive processes that produce food, purify soil and water, and preserve both human well-being and the health of the biosphere

Soil organisms do critical stuff

  • Our current understanding of the role of soil organisms in plant growth and the transformation of pollutants has been harnessed to improve agricultural production and reclaim degraded soils

We already use soil organisms

  • Laboratory and analytical advances in the past decade allow us to move beyond research on individual species to study whole communities of organisms, and hence develop new approaches to address food security and environmental protection

Innovation is here

  • The essential contributions of soil organisms are threatened by soil-degrading practises. Policies that minimise soil degradation and protect soil biodiversity should be a component of biodiversity protection at all levels 

Soil degradation is a huge problem

These are standard if impenetrable suggestions that you would expect from the United Nations.

Roughly translated, the message is that humans are great, but maybe there are some issues that the masses don’t know about. 

The key points in the report are supported by solid, logical sentiment from a thorough research base. A long list of references are presented to give credibility — over 140 pages of them in the main report. 

In casting our healthy sceptics eye across this work, sFED sees a comprehensive review of evidence that covers most of what science knows is important about soil biodiversity.

The policymakers summary advises to champion soil biodiversity, know more about it, and make the rest of us more aware — soil is not just dirt.

These are all noble objectives, yet there is always the nagging question of ‘why, if dirt (sorry soil) is so important, does it barely get a mention?’

Photo by Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash

Here is what the UN report says is ‘the way forward’…

  • Advocate for mainstreaming soil biodiversity into the sustainable development agenda, the Post-2020 biodiversity framework, the UN decade on ecosystem restoration, and all areas where soil biodiversity can contribute

Advocate

  • Develop standard protocols and procedures for assessing soil biodiversity at different scales

Standardise assessments

  • Promote the establishment of soil information and monitoring systems that include soil biodiversity as a key indicator of soil health

Share information

  • Improve knowledge (including local or traditional) of the soil microbiome

Strengthen the knowledge on the different soil groups forming soil biodiversity (i.e., microbes, micro, meso, macro and megafauna); 

Learn more

  • Establish a global capacity building programme for the use and management of soil biodiversity and the Global Soil Biodiversity Observatory. 

Build capacity

Suddenly, the essential urgency is lost in the technical mumbo jumbo. 

The way forward sounds more like a research agenda than awareness or practical action. Odd for an issue that impacts ‘human well-being and the health of the biosphere’.

 Humanity is in lockstep with ecological processes and we should all have some knowledge of this fact. sFED believes soil biodiversity should be in everyone’s face to make it everyone’s problem to resolve.

Leave this all to the ivory towers, and nothing meaningful will get done for years, realistically decades. By then, it will be too late.

What we know right now is that the biology beneath our feet is critical to the future of humanity.

We know what impacts this biology and so we also know what not to do to land and what to do to land to keep biodiversity in good shape.

We just have to get on with it.


Main information source: FAO, ITPS, GSBI, SCBD, and EC. 2020. State of knowledge of soil biodiversity – Status, challenges and potentialities, Summary for policymakers. Rome, FAO.


Hero image modified from photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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