Life on Earth depends on healthy soils. The soil under our feet is a living system – home to many fascinating plants and animals, whose invisible interactions ensure our well-being and that of the planet. Soils provide us with nutritious food and other products as well as with clean water and flourishing habitats for biodiversity.
At the same time, soils can help slow the onset of climate change and make us more resilient to extreme climate events such as droughts and floods. Soils preserve our cultural heritage and are a key part of the landscapes that we all cherish. Simply put, healthy living soils keep us, and the world around us, alive.
We tend to take these benefits for granted and as a result have neglected the health of our soils. The increasing demand for land for urban development and infrastructures is consuming our most fertile soils. At the same time, inappropriate or unsustainable use of soil and how we deal with our waste is affecting soil health, which in turn, disrupts the capacity of soils to carry out the vital services that they perform.
Climate change is putting further pressure on soil health. The EU Soil Health and Food Mission recently estimated 60-70% of EU soils were unhealthy as they are undergoing soil organic carbon loss, experience excess nutrient or have unsustainable erosion rates. Many other issues were also highlighted. Here in the UK we are not immune to this for example, we know there has been ongoing loss of soil organic carbon in cropland soils since the 1970s, unsustainable use of our peatlands and an unknown area of contaminated land.
Why do we need to act now?
Soils are fragile and they can take thousands of years to form but can be destroyed in hours. This means that we need to take care of soils now so that they can be regenerated and safeguarded for future generations.
Soil degradation is largely driven by how we live. Left unchecked, it will aggravate many challenges facing the planet. Soil may also have major role in responding to risks from emerging infectious diseases as microbes that live in the soil are a promising source of new therapeutic drugs. This in the hands of all of us.
We need to create communities which shifts perceptions about soil health across all walks of life to support more sustainable management practices and reduce pressure on this non-renewable resource.
Text adapted from Veerman et al. 2020. EU Mission on Soil Health and Food.