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Why doesn’t soil get the same attention as climate change?

 

Why doesn’t soil get the same attention as climate change?

Dr Jonathan Green

4 December 2015


World Soil DayThe importance of soil to our well-being is unequivocal and 2015, the United Nations International Year of Soils, has seen a flurry of activity and interest around soils, particularly around World Soil Day, celebrated every 5 December. Headlines such as ‘100 Harvests left’ and warnings of oblivion due to a soil crisis have helped to draw attention to our critical dependence upon this much misused resource, but has this been translated into action? Are businesses and governments reacting appropriately to the news that we are destroying one of humanity’s most basic resources?

It is difficult to say. However, from my experience, soil lags far behind concerns around water, biodiversity and carbon emissions for most governments and companies. George Monbiot’s recent article provides a characteristically sobering assessment of the state of soil regulation in the European Union, highlighting the failed attempt to establish a Soils Framework Directive, much to the disappointment of campaigners who rightly say that regulations around soil protection should be on a par with those around water and air.

So if soil degradation is such a threat, why does it not receive the same level of attention as climate change, habitat loss or water security, and why is it not front-of-mind for supply chain managers?

I think there are three important barriers. First, soil science is complex. Understanding what constitutes suitable soil for different crops is not straightforward and depends upon the interdependent physical properties (e.g. texture, porosity and structure); chemical properties (e.g. nutrient content, pH and organic soil carbon); and biological properties (e.g. soil microbial activity). Second, soil is not generally perceived as threatened or scarce, despite the fact that vast areas of agricultural land are lost to soil degradation every year. Third, identifying solutions to mitigate the threats of soil degradation or repair the damage that is done with regards to soil fertility or structure is not simple and solutions must be assessed in the light of other concerns with which soil is interwoven, such as water and biodiversity. Last, action on soil lacks immediate incentives. With supply chain managers focused on minimising costs and maximising yields in the short term, the future of soil health slips under the radar.

So what must be done? The first steps are to raise awareness, a big focus of 2015, and to demonstrate what can and should be done. At the Natural Capital Leaders Platform, we have recently conducted two Action Research Collaboratories (ARCs) for cotton and dairy, which used a commodity focus to assess the impacts and dependencies of these industries upon soils. We sought to highlight solutions that can be used to better manage natural capital resources, such as soil, and to provide a framework to allow existing evidence to be incorporated into the decisions of supply chain managers and farmers and to identify where more evidence is needed.

For soil especially, the effects of management interventions are context-specific, making generalities difficult and highlighting the importance of expertise in agricultural decision-making. The ARCs also include a focus on biodiversity and water and highlight how these two elements are also interwoven into the health of soils – none of these three elements can be considered in isolation. The ARCs identify a number of research gaps around the impact of practices on soil fertility and structure that limit the ability of supply chain managers to make informed decisions regarding natural capital management.

To link back to another major challenge facing society, climate change, it is worth noting that soils sequester carbon, are affected by climate change, and underpin any mitigation or adaptive response. As the world focuses its attention on the COP21 climate talks in Paris, scientists and politicians would do well to remember the importance of soil: we may need to grow food in different places, across smaller areas or under different climates, and we need to be sure that we have not discarded the opportunity to do so.

About the author

Jonathan's research centres on understanding the decisions that people make regarding the environment and, more specifically, how these relate to the distribution of conservation costs and benefits.

Jonathan works closely with colleagues in the Natural Capital Leaders Platform who have a long-standing relationship with influential business leaders, working together to develop tools and understanding to address natural capital depletion.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.