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Unearthing sustainability: soil science for the SDGs

From carbon storage properties to alien tree invasion, Dr. Eleonora Bonifacio, Professor of Pedology at the University of Turin, provided us with a glimpse of her research ahead of her webinar on 19 September.

Dr. Eleonora Bonifacio is Professor of Pedology at the University of Turin, in Italy. Her main research interests are related to the processes of soil development, shaping natural soil fertility and affecting soil agricultural use. She focuses on soil physical properties (e.g. soil structure development, soil porosity etc..) and on the evaluation of soil erosion. She has research collaborations in many European countries as well as in Japan, Australia, Russia and America.

In the upcoming ISC Distinguished Lecture Series webinar, titled ‘Linking Mechanisms to Soil Functions to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,’ she will delve into little-known functions and properties of soil. She will notably detail carbon storage mechanisms, explain the invasiveness of alien tree species, and talk about plants’ survival properties.

💻 Join us online on 19 September at 16:00 CEST by registering here.

What initially sparked your interest in paedology and what led you to specialize in this field?

I was truly captivated by my university soil science professor, Enza Arduino. A very clever woman, who was able to introduce me to the complexity of the topic, and to the interlinks between the different aspects of soil science. Only through appropriate reasoning were students able to answer to her questions. This is now standard in university teaching but was not so prevalent in the early 1980s. I was struck to discover that everything in soil science seemed incredibly logical.

Another fascinating aspects of studying soils that drew me to the field is that you need to know a little of several disciplines, as soils comprise minerals, organic compounds, living organisms – making it a very interesting transdisciplinary field of study.

How do you see the field of paedology evolving in the coming years? Are there pressing challenges or questions in the field that researchers should focus on in the coming years?

I think that current research in pedology, and in other sciences, should reexamine fundamental concepts. This effort would avoid the replication of experiments. For instance, the phenomenon of soil pH decreasing along a climatic gradient is rooted in geochemistry theory and has been empirically demonstrated for many years. Still, as editor of a scientific journal, I often come across research hypotheses like “we hypothesize that soil pH would be higher in drier areas compared to wetter ones,” followed by attempts to prove this hypothesis. Well, I’d be much more curious to read papers demonstrating the opposite scenario and investigating the reasons behind the deviation from the trend.

New techniques allow extensive data acquisition and generate interesting new research, alongside new concepts. However, on a global scale, the vast variability of soils makes it impractical to assess their responses to climate change or other global stressors in every location. This is why knowledge mining has to be promoted. I’m surprised by the fact that a substantial amount of research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s is not always readily accessible, due to the lack of digital transfer. This often leads to unintentional research duplication.

What motivated you to choose these specific topics for discussion in this lecture for the International Year of Basic Science for Sustainable Development?

Among the numerous functions of soil, I’ve chosen to focus on three.

The first one is carbon sequestration. A lot of research has been done in the last 20 years on the mechanism of organic matter stabilization in soils, but it appears that we failed in disseminating these findings to other scientific communities and stakeholders, as many old concepts are still in vogue.

The second function I’d like to highlight is the provision of nutrients for plant growth. With the depletion of fertilizer reserves looming, the need for an optimized fertilization is imperative. While crop management strategies incorporate sustainability principles, our understanding of how crops will respond to global changes in terms of nutrient requirements remains limited and underutilized. The same gap holds for semi-natural environments, such as forests or grasslands – how will they react to the increased CO2 concentration? Some nutrients might become limiting factors but this is dependent on soil properties.

The last one is biodiversity. I am not a soil biologist, but one question every soil scientist should ask themselves is whether gains are linked to soil variability. Is there a theoretical limit to increasing soil biodiversity and carbon sequestration, or can we continuously enhance these functions?

How does pedology intersect with other scientific disciplines?

If we think of soil as of the interface between the biotic and abiotic compartments of the earth. It’s clear that interactions with geologists, biologists and plant physiologists are obvious. In addition, the contribution from more applied sciences (crop and forest sciences) are needed if we really want to connect the results of fascinating scientific problems to real world.

I hope that colleagues from other disciplines will be curious about soil properties and functioning. It would truly delight me if this webinar sparks new interdisciplinary interactions.

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The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

Image by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash.

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