Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Why Soils? Highlights from the 2015 Soil Atlas

Soils are finally starting to get the explicit recognition they deserve as a fundamental and irreplaceable global resource. To further discuss and celebrate the importance of soils, the third annual Global Soil Week will be held in Berlin from April 19-23. 

Leading up to the conference, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam released the Soil Atlas 2015. The Atlas provides a broad overview of soils-related issues, ranging from global land use patterns (urbanization, ownership inequality and use of the commons) to small-scale management (fertilizer use, organic farming methods and restoration).

Credit: Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam

The unsustainable management of and unequal access to soil and land are both important themes in the report. The effects of anthropogenic change (including climate change, land use change and waste) are being felt around the world: The quality of our agricultural production systems is rapidly dwindling due to major risks like deforestation, loss of species and water shortages/drought.

Credit: FAO via Soil Atlas 2015

What can we do?

There are a number of ways that we can begin to tackle this global issue. We need to encourage land reform (especially taking into account factors like gender), given that access to land is one of the major factors that allows people to move away from poverty and hunger. In high-income countries, we should reassess our consumption patterns and consider the negative social and environmental effects of excessive consumption. We can encourage organic farming techniques to build up humus and promote soil biodiversity, and supplement (when necessary) with inorganic fertilizers in a responsible manner. And we must rehabilitate the soil by combining agronomic, vegetative, structural and management tactics (like many farmers already do) on a larger scale to halt degradation and improve overall soil fertility.

What works?

Achieving large-scale adoption of improved soil management practices is not an insurmountable challenge, and there are examples of progress. In less than two decades, Brazil has decreased deforestation by 24,200 square kilometers per year as a result of consumer awareness and pressure, government commitment and improvements in ranching techniques. In Lesotho, conservation agriculture practices and a local system called likoti (where small holes are dug, compost or inorganic fertilizer is inserted, seeds and soil are added and weeding and crop rotation are carried out) have doubled both yields and income while reducing erosion. And in Australia, aboriginal groups have formed a collective, asserted their right to land and prevented the government from creating a radioactive waste site in the Northern Territory.

Credit: Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam

There is no “quick fix” nor a “one-size-fits-all” approach that will prevent land degradation, promote soil fertility and reduce inequality. Even one year of dedicated international attention is much too short – but it’s a start! Restoring the 33 percent of soils that are degraded and improving management techniques across the board will take time and long-term commitment from all stakeholders, and solutions will vary by context and locality. But, if we give it the sustained attention it deserves, we can begin to rebuild the soil and rethink how we view this invaluable input – beyond 2015.