It’s remarkable how little people talk about soil. As a kid, my father, a soil scientist, would marvel at the soil profiles we’d pass while on a walk. The excitement wasn’t mutual. Light brown, a slightly darker brown, a bit of red in between, maybe a few stones; it was dirt, nothing more.
In an ode to parents everywhere, I must proclaim: he was right. Something as fundamental as the air we breathe was beneath my feet, everywhere I went.
Soils are the basis of life on land. The importance of soil dates back millions of years. Using water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, plants harnessed incoming solar energy to create sugars and release oxygen. Over time, this process of photosynthesis created a climate conducive for life to flourish.
And flourish it did. As vital as the water or sunlight which sustain them, soil provides essential nutrients for plants. These core nutrients found in the soil – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – are the behind-the-scenes heroes who keep every single person on Earth alive. For, without these macronutrients, the high-energy phosphate bonds converted from electromagnetic energy within plants could not produce phytomass. The creation of new mass was crucial to sustain the heterotrophs which now roamed the Earth, chiefly among them, humans. These soil nutrients are the Severus Snape to every Harry Potter, the Samwise Gamgee to every Frodo – never the star of the show, but absolutely essential.
I am belabouring this point to state one basic conclusion: all of the building blocks which allow us to be alive are traced back to digested organic compounds, which in turn go back to the organisms which can synthesise new biomass from simple, inorganic inputs. These phototrophs rely on nutrients from the soil to carry out their fundamental activities. Simply put: no soil, no humans.
Therefore, as this year draws to a close, we should reflect on another fact: 2015 was the International Year of Soils. Soils have been put in the spotlight for the many roles they play in our biosphere. They help feed us, house a quarter of Earth’s biodiversity, protect against climate change, and filter our water.
Dirty soil, cleaning our water? Indeed. As water infiltrates through the soil, pollutants get trapped. Groundwater becomes cleaner and safer to drink. An even more basic role of soil is to store water which is tapped by trees and plants. The soil prevents useful water from evaporating away on the surface.
Healthy soils also make a global difference. Degraded soils which lack important nutrients can be restored to reduce emissions from agriculture, a huge contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Exhaust fumes coming out of a car might be more obvious, but poorly managed agriculture is also an environmental culprit. Sustainably managing our soils can reduce these emissions and even sequester or store carbon from the atmosphere.
Despite their importance, soils are trodden upon. Global awareness is minimal (be honest: did you know the United Nations declared 2015 as the year of soils?), and few recognise their value. They have no voice. Posters of unhealthy soils won’t raise money. There are few global champions for soil. Because of this, research budgets are squeezed, spreading of best practices for soil management are limited, and soil quality continues to degrade. When we think about the many issues confronting us, it’s natural that soils might not appear at the top of our list. But they are too important to forget. For soils, we need to stand our ground. Pun intended.
Tim Dobermann is the Project Lead for Research & Policy at SDSN Youth. He is a Country Economist for the International Growth Centre and has participated widely in both research and in policy dialogues pertaining to economic development and climate change. He holds a postgraduate degree in economics from the London School of Economics (LSE). All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinions of the author and not that of SDSN Youth.