Would you ever think that there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoonful of soil than there are people on Earth? Bacteria, algae, beetles and ants are just a few of the billions of organisms that live in our soil and are affected by its pollution. Climate change is not something that solely takes place in the atmosphere, in fact soils and lands are the second biggest carbon “sink” after oceans, and play a crucial role when it comes to its storage or emissions.
The importance of maintaining and restoring nutritious and fertile soils and lands becomes apparent when looking at their impacts on our climate. As fertile soils, that allow for vegetation growth, absorb carbon and infertile or contaminated emit carbon into the atmosphere, the climate is directly affected by the state of our planet’s soil. Furthermore, soils provide for crucial regulating services such as the transformation of contaminants or the filtering of other substances that might otherwise leach into the groundwater. Bacteria and micro-organisms that are responsible for much of the nutrient cycling processes also live within these soils and are highly affected by agro-chemicals and pesticides. However, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimates an increase in food production by 50% by the mid-century in order to meet growing global demands. If this comes to pass, we will also be facing an increase in the usage of these plant protection products. Hence, we need to start thinking about what can be done in order to make sure that soils can continue to perform their ecosystem services.
Farmers are confronted with the dilemma of reducing the use of agro-chemicals whilst still preserving their yield and profitability. However a solution to this is important for increased food safety, security and nutrition. There are various programmes in place designed to tackle the use of agro-chemicals, such as Integrated Pest Management policies in the EU and other parts of the world. Furthermore, publications such as the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management by The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations address how to tackle issues of soil acidification, contamination, compaction, sealing and loss of biodiversity, amongst other concerns. International Codes of Conduct on Pesticide Management also exist, detailing various management and mitigation strategies that outline safe pesticide use. Limiting the use of pesticides and their subsequent transfer to water bodies can also be controlled using different land management approaches and agricultural techniques.
The question remains if these policies and guidelines are enough to prevent soil degradation and contamination? Should continued use of certain agro-chemicals still be allowed considering the continuing and increasing negative effects that they have on soil quality and biodiversity? Concerns relating to land and soil, and solutions addressing them need to be given more thought, as we can clearly see that the ground we walk on is essential to our continued prosperous existence on this planet.
Anastazja Klimczyk & Kim Widmann