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Present and Future: Five Years into the International Decade of Soil Health

As we approach the halfway point in the International Decade of Soil Health in 2020, we revisit the critical roles that soil plays in realizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Soil is the basis for plant growth, supporting a diverse array of ecosystems – from boreal forests, to wetlands, jungles, prairies and grasslands. Healthy soil supports biodiversity, hosting an extensive and diverse community of organisms that recycle critical nutrients and improve the overall structure of the soil. Perhaps most importantly, healthy soil contributes toward mitigating climate change by increasing, or storing soil organic carbon.

The International Science Council spoke to Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. He is also Past President of International Union of Soil Sciences.

“Soil health and its sustainable management is critically important in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, and specifically SDG #2 ( Zero Hunger), SDG #13 (Climate Action) and SDG#15 (Life on Land),” said Lal. “Furthermore, the health of soil, plants, animals, people and the environment are one and indivisible.

“Restoration and judicious management of soil health is critical to addressing undernourishment of 821 million people (mostly in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa) and 800 million malnourished people from around the world.”

The use of phosphates has long been considered the magic answer to high yielding crops, and therefore, contributing to lower levels of global hunger. Though phosphates do contribute to a high crop production, according to Lal, the chemicals must be used judiciously, and recycled as much as possible.

“While recent estimates of available phosphate reserves indicate adequate supply for several centuries, these resources occur in only 5 countries. These countries also happen to be in geopolitically sensitive regions,” he explains. “Therefore, sustainable management and recycling of phosphates have at least two urgent issues that need attention.”

The first of these issues is algal bloom – a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae in freshwater or marine water systems. Harmful algal bloom contains organisms that can severely lower oxygen levels in natural waters, killing marine life.

“Management of soil health and adoption of conservation effective measures that reduce the risks of surface runoff and soil erosion are urgent and critically needed.”

Rattan Lal

The second urgent issue is hypoxia – or depleted oxygen in a water body. Also associated with the overgrowth of certain species of algae, hypoxia can lead to oxygen depletion when they decompose. These issues can occur largely because of nonpoint source pollution caused by the transportation of phosphates and other nutrients from agricultural ecosystems into natural waters. Therefore, management of soil health and adoption of conservation effective measures that reduce the risks of surface runoff and soil erosion are urgent and critically needed. Through practices such as urban farming, nutrients brought into megacities can be recycled to produce a part of the food consumed within the city limits. A population of 7.8  billion now, which will be a primarily urban-dwelling population of nearly 9.8 billion by 2050, must be fed through urban agriculture.

Throughout the next five years of the international decade, the IUSS will continue its series of books published annually on 5 December, World Soil Day in a bid to engage policy makers and the community on soil health. It is the hope of the IUSS that the decade will amplify the importance of soil science to show its critical importance in realizing the SDGs.

Plants and soil are mutually dependent, one cannot survive without the other – just like science and international scientific unions. In realizing the ambitious yet fundamental goals outlined in the United Nations 2030 Agenda, international science, and institutions such as the ISC play a critical role in fostering and strengthening cooperation among its members who have common goals.

Photo by Josh Withers on Unsplash

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