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United Nations Report Reveals Serious Threats to Soil Health

December 9, 2015

World Soil Day, celebrated on December 4, marked the end of the United Nations (UN) International Year of Soils, but a new report finds that much more work is necessary to boost soil health across the globe.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils recently published a report that illuminates multiple threats to soil health, including population growth, industrialization, and climate change. “The Status of the World’s Soil Resources” is the first report that evaluates soil health globally.

The “Regional trends in the condition of soils” chapter lists threats to soil health in various parts of the world, focusing on 10 types of threats: soil erosion, soil organic carbon loss, nutrient imbalance, soil acidification, soil contamination, waterlogging, soil compaction, soil sealing, salinization and loss of soil biodiversity.

According to the report, the four biggest threats to soil function in North America, listed in order of importance, are:

  1. Soil erosion: The northern Midwest in the U.S. suffers from particularly high erosion rates;
  2. Nutrient imbalance: High fertilizer use results in increased nitrous oxide emissions;
  3. Organic carbon change: Climate change threatens increased loss of organic carbon; and
  4. Loss of soil biodiversity: The effects of increasing agricultural chemical use, especially pesticides, on soil biodiversity (the bacteria and other organisms that make the soil work) is a major public concern.

The report hones in on four priorities to start reversing the degradation of soil:

  • minimize future soil degradation and enhance soil productivity in places where people are most vulnerable;
  • identify and implement management practices that are location-appropriate and improve organic carbon in soil (i.e. practices that prevent erosion);
  • stabilize or reduce global nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer use; and
  • improve knowledge of current soil conditions.

Lastly, the report offers guidance on policy solutions, including:

  • boosting education and awareness;
  • promoting monitoring and forecasting systems;
  • informing markets;
  • instituting appropriate incentives and regulations;
  • ensuring intergenerational equity;
  • supporting local, regional, and international security; and
  • understanding connectedness and consequences.

The FAO report comes on the heels of a paper focused on soil carbon sequestration that NSAC and Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, LLC published last month. Authored by Daniel Kane, “Carbon Sequestration Potential on Agricultural Lands: A Review of Current Science and Available Practices” describes how soil carbon is sequestered, explains the current state of soil carbon research, and discusses the debate surrounding the global sequestration potential of agricultural soils.

The soil carbon paper is available to download on our publications page, and the UN report is available online here.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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