The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils (IYS) (A/RES/68/232).
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been nominated to implement the IYS 2015, within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership and in collaboration with Governments and the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
The IYS 2015 aims to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.
The specific objectives of the IYS 2015 are to:
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While in the UK recently, I met with a professor who shared some deeply concerning findings. He informed me that a recent survey of leading British scientists revealed that as many as one in five of the best thinkers in the country believe that we will be extinct as a species by the end of this century, or perhaps much earlier. This confronting information should serve to sponsor meaningful action from every one of us. There are five core threats that need to be urgently addressed and they all relate back to the soil. These include:
Loss of topsoil – at the current rate of topsoil loss, we have just 60 years before the thin veil that sustains us is no more. This is a huge issue because we will hit the wall way before this six-decade deadline. What is driving this dramatic loss? Basically, it comes down to the massive decline in organic matter following the industrial, extractive experiment in agriculture. We have now lost more than two thirds of our humus. Humus is the soil glue that determines whether rivers run brown following rainstorms or if the winds tear dust from the fragile upper layers of our food-producing soils. Nature teaches us that you must give to receive. This universal law is at work in photosynthesis, the single most important process in nature. The plant pumps one third of the sugars it produces from photosynthesis back into the soil to feed the microbes, which in turn fix nitrogen, deliver minerals and protect against plant and soil pests. It is all about giving to receive.
However, this is not a lesson we have applied to our farmland. It is a fairly basic concept that when you remove crops from a field, you are extracting carbon and minerals and you can not just keep taking indefinitely. Unfortunately, this has been the dominant model in many soils for the past century. We have overtilled our soils, oxidised the humus and often ignored the replacement of key minerals that determine the health of humus-building microbes. We have burnt out humus with excess nitrogen at the rate of 100 kg of carbon per every 1 kg of nitrogen oversupplied. We have removed massive amounts of minerals and carbon with ever-increasing yields from our NPK-driven hybridised crops. In many areas we continue to burn crop residues. This senseless practice floods the atmosphere with CO2, which should have been returned to the soil as humus. Burning also damages soil-life while scorching precious organic matter in the process. The loss of topsoil has been increasing for a century and now, with the challenge of climate extremes, it is accelerating at quite a pace. Soil health legislation is essential in all of the thirty countries I have visited in the past year and in the International Year of Soils, we all need to be pushing for a Soil Restoration Bill to formalise this urgent necessity.
Ocean acidification is another threat. The oceans have absorbed around half of the CO2 that has billowed from our soils, smokestacks and cement makers over the past century. This is a planetary self-balancing mechanism, which has helped avoid a much higher global temperature increase. However, there has been a price to pay for this compensatory, carbon redistribution. The CO2 becomes carbonic acid in the ocean and, as a result, our seas have become increasingly acidic. It is basic chemistry that creatures that make their outer shells from calcium struggle to do so in increasingly acidic conditions. This directly impacts coral, shellfish, phytoplankton, algae and krill, and their struggle for survival has already begun. The key understanding here is that their survival is actually our survival. 500 million of us are directly dependent on coral reefs. Algae and krill are the basic building block for all life in the ocean. Phytoplankton produce 60% of the oxygen we breathe and we have already lost 40% of these creatures. It is a serious situation that is worsening by the month and our only response to date is to talk about reducing carbon emissions. Talk is all we have done. There has been very little action, because the latest figures show a 10% increase in global carbon emissions over this past year. This is the biggest single increase ever recorded, at a time when we are supposedly focusing on critically important reductions. There is a solution to this crisis and it rests in the soil.
Ocean warming is possibly the most urgent issue at present. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more thickening (compared to CO2) of the heat-trapping blanket that warms our world. Permafrost is the phenomenon where ancient organic matter releases methane gas as the ice cover melts. There are currently huge, unanticipated outpourings of methane associated with the rapid thawing of Siberia. However, there is an even more threatening methane-driven phenomenon linked to the loss of ice in the arctic. The arctic oceans house mountains of methane and carbon sludge called methane hydrates. This material remains stable at the low temperatures and high pressure found at depths below 500 metres. However, it is now suggested that there will be no summer ice cover in this region within less than two years. This means that the arctic oceans, lacking the reflective effect of the ice cover, will warm much more rapidly. In a recent edition, the prestigious scientific journal Nature warned of a strong potential for a massive "methane burp" from this region within the next two or three years. They suggested that this "burp" could involve 50 gigatonnes of methane in one huge release. This is equivalent to 1150 gigatonnes of CO2. Here are some figures that help to put this huge release into perspective. The entire man-made contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere from industry, energy generation and transport since 1860 is 250 gigatonnes. The loss of two thirds of our humus through soil mismanagement represents another 476 gigatonnes. We may be set to see the equivalent of over 150% more CO2 than that combined total, released in one short time frame. It is a truly frightening scenario that highlights the screaming urgency of a call to action.
Food security and feeding the billions become increasingly serious concerns as climate change progresses. There is no country I have visited in the past 12 months that has not had serious issues linked to climate change. Brazil, with its biggest drought in 80 years; California, with a three-year killer drought; India, with a belated, substandard monsoon; and large areas of Asia, NZ and Australia impacted with unparalleled weather extremes. It is becoming increasingly likely that these climate-related issues could serve to trigger economic recession or depression and that is when the importance of food security becomes paramount. In uncertain economic times, you are absurdly vulnerable if you are a country like Qatar, with 6% of the food security of Japan, who produce just 40% of their own food requirements. Turmoil and international aggression come hand-in-hand with financial collapse – it is easy to shut down the imported food supply of another country when seeking to fast-track capitulation. Improving your food security becomes an urgent necessity in this brave new world.
Soil health determines productive capacity. In fact, good soil and water are increasingly seen as "the new gold", in recognition of their expanding importance. Warren Buffet is buying up farms with good soil and water, the Bush family have just bought the largest aquifer in South America and the Chinese are buying up good farmland across the globe (in countries where it is allowable). The GMO companies have sold us the story that their GM varieties are the solution to feeding a growing world population. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that these finely tuned hybrids require very specific and precise conditions to deliver their promise. They can be very productive when given the correct fertiliser, moisture requirements and climate conditions but they can really struggle in challenging conditions. In short, they do not have resilience and resilience is the single most important requirement in a world that is becoming considerably less predictable. The more mineralised and biologically active your soil, the greater the crop resilience. There are tens of thousands of examples of this phenomenon. In fact, the obvious validity of a soil health strategy could be clearly contrasted with the failings of the conventional approach in the face of changing conditions. The suicide of 300,000 Indian farmers is partially related to crop failures linked to this lack of resilience in GM crops. The reality is this: the billions are better fed with humus-rich, living soils that store precious moisture more efficiently and sustain crops that can adapt to and perform in changing conditions.
Declining nutrition in our food and chemical contamination of our fresh produce are two other closely-related issues impacting our sustainability. The industrial, extractive agriculture model has seen the constant removal of soil minerals and a loss of two thirds of the humus that helps to store and deliver those minerals. It is common sense to recognise that, every time we take a crop from a field, we are removing a little of all 74 minerals that were originally present in those soils. We replace a handful of them, often in an unbalanced fashion, and we assault our soil life with a smorgasbord of farm chemicals, many of which are proven biocides. When we have bombed the microbe bridge between soil and plant there is a price to pay. The plant suffers, in that it has less access to the trace minerals that fuel immunity, and the animals and humans eating those plants are also compromised. It has been suggested that the food we now consume contains just 20% of the nutrition found in the food consumed by our grandparents when they were children. The immune-compromised plant will always require more chemical intervention, and repeated studies have demonstrated the cumulative effect of chemical residues in our bodies. This serious scenario is all about minerals and microbes, and they, in turn, are housed by humus.
Scary, scary stuff. Goodness knows if the movement towards more natural gardening/farming will be in time to save us.
Finally people in authority to make the right changes are aware - next step is for them to influence enough governments to actually make the changes. Could be where necessity stumbles in the face of greed and self-interest. But it also could be the start of something really big.
There's lots of good-soil movements around the world, local growing and like us, local eating. But what the planet needs is an amalgamation of all of these well-intended local organisations into something big enough and influential enough to stop the greed in its tracks.
Let's hope the movement grows in time.