In soil we trust

July 14, 2011
Soil. Credit: © Zemdega

Put simply, we cannot survive without soil. Its rich combination of minerals, carbon-rich organic matter and water supports plant life. It also harbours its own diverse ecosystem of millions of microbes and fauna that aerate the soil, cycle nutrients, decompose dead matter and mineralise rock fragments around them.

And although forests might most readily spring to mind when considering the role of the natural environment in carbon exchange, what may not be so obvious is the vast carbon sink under our very feet. In fact, more carbon is stored in soil worldwide than is found in the and the planet’s biomass put together.

Yet this fundamental resource is under threat from intensive agricultural practices and erosion. The catastrophe of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when a combination of severe drought and intensive farming caused dust storms across the American prairies, shows the extent to which major damage can be inflicted.

Now, a major programme with €7 million funding from the European Commission will help to define a policy for sustainable management of soils, with a view to adopting a legally binding Soil Framework Directive, such as exists for air and water.

The Ecological Function and Biodiversity Indicators in European Soils (EcoFINDERS) programme, which launched in January 2011, brings together 22 institutional European research partners, including the University of Cambridge, to formulate how best to manage the health of soil.

Soil value

Given the demands made on soil, it can’t look after itself. The goal of EcoFINDERS is to design and implement soil strategies aimed at ensuring the sustainable use of soils, as Dr Unai Pascual, who leads the Cambridge component of the programme, explained: “The general hypothesis is that changes in the diversity of and in soil indicate how healthy it is. EcoFINDERS is therefore characterising soil biodiversity and determining how this links with soil functions and ecosystem services.”

“Our contribution to the programme is focused on working out the value of the soil ecosystem services: essentially, how much does soil matter when you take into account all of the functions it performs?” added Dr. Pascual. “Our task is to design cost-effective and socially fair policy instruments for the conservation of soil biodiversity.”

In effect, soil provides such a vast array of essential ecosystem services that maintaining its health has implications for food production, water availability, climate-induced environmental change, resistance to diseases and pests, and the regulation of its own and above-ground biodiversity.

Dr. Pascual believes that understanding the value of soil biodiversity conservation in relation to its function to deliver key ecosystem services that support human wellbeing will open up a whole new way of looking at and land management in Europe and elsewhere, especially in the context of current global challenges such as food security and climate change.

Explore further: Limitations of charcoal as an effective carbon sink

Related Stories

No-tillage plus

July 28, 2008

Tropical soils often behave differently than temperate soils when being farmed. In tropical regions, soils lose nutrients quickly when cultivated. With food shortages looming and soil quality declining rapidly, new farming ...

Before selling carbon credits, read this

May 18, 2007

Storing carbon in agricultural soils presents an immediate option to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and slow global warming. Farmers who adopt practices that store carbon in soil may be able to "sell" the stored carbon ...

Rediscovering sound soil management

May 10, 2011

At the same time that demand for food is soaring along with the world's population, the soil's ability to sustain and enhance agricultural productivity is becoming increasingly diminished and unreliable.

Recommended for you

Heavy nitrogen molecules reveal planetary-scale tug-of-war

November 17, 2017

Nature whispers its stories in a faint molecular language, and Rice University scientist Laurence Yeung and colleagues can finally tell one of those stories this week, thanks to a one-of-a-kind instrument that allowed them ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jul 20, 2011
In soil we trust

Yes, but we do no longer trust government-funded eco-engineers or climatologists.

The Climategate scandal and the reluctance of leaders of the scientific community to accept responsibility for or speak out against data manipulation have seriously damaged the credibility of government science and engineering.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.