Global soils underpin life but future looks ‘bleak’, warns UN report

Global soils are the source of all life on land but their future looks “bleak” without action to halt degradation, according to the authors of a UN report.



a truck traveling down a dirt road: Photograph: Zsolt Czeglédi/EPA


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Photograph: Zsolt Czeglédi/EPA

A quarter of all the animal species on Earth live beneath our feet and provide the nutrients for all food. Soils also store as much carbon as all plants above ground and are therefore critical in tackling the climate emergency. But there also are major gaps in knowledge, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report, which is the first on the global state of biodiversity in soils.

The report was compiled by 300 scientists, who describe the worsening state of soils as at least as important as the climate crisis and destruction of the natural world above ground. Crucially, it takes thousands of years for soils to form, meaning urgent protection and restoration of the soils that remain is needed.

The scientists describe soils as like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, and easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, pollution and global heating.

“Soil organisms play a crucial role in our everyday life by working to sustain life on Earth,” said Ronald Vargas, of the FAO and the secretary of the Global Soil Partnership.

Prof Richard Bardgett, of the University of Manchester, who was a lead author of the report, said: “There is a vast reservoir of biodiversity living in the soil that is out of sight and is generally out of mind. But few things matter more to humans because we rely on the soil to produce food. There’s now pretty strong evidence that a large proportion of the Earth’s surface has been degraded as a result of human activities.”



a truck driving down a dirt road: Scientists describe soils as like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, and easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, and pollution.


© Photograph: Zsolt Czeglédi/EPA
Scientists describe soils as like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, and easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, and pollution.

Related: UK is 30-40 years away from ‘eradication of soil fertility’, warns Gove

Since the Industrial Revolution, about 135bn tonnes of soil has been lost from farmland, according to Prof Rattan Lal, the 2020 winner of the World Food prize.

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People should be worried, said Bardgett. “If things carry on as they are, the outlook is bleak, unquestionably. But I think it’s not too late to introduce measures now.”

Prof Nico Eisenhauer, of Leipzig University, another lead author of the report, said: “It is a major issue that we are dependent on this thin layer that is sometimes just a couple of centimetres, sometimes several metres, but a very vulnerable, living skin.”

Related: The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food – but it’s rapidly disappearing

Soils simultaneously produce food, store carbon and purify water, he said, so they are “at least as important” as the climate and above-ground biodiversity crises. “If you’re

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Sheep show the contamination by microplastics in the agricultural soils of Murcia

Sheep show the contamination by microplastics in the agricultural soils of Murcia
Sheeps during the study. Credit: Nicolas Beriot (Diverfarming project)

In recent times, the increase in plastic residues has been reasserted as being a major environmental problem. This material, which is present in packaging and day-to-day objects, plays a decisive role in intensive agriculture zones.


In the Region of Murcia, known as ‘Europe’s market garden,’ mulch film (plastic covering over the crop lines) increases production in vegetable fields, but involves using large amounts of plastic. This low-density plastic is difficult to completely remove from the fields and, with time, decomposes into smaller particles which are absorbed by the soil, transported by water or wind, and are also ingested by other animals.

In order to know the status of contamination by microplastics in this zone, researchers from the universities of Wageningen and Cartagena analyzed the presence of these plastics in agricultural soil, and also in sheep feces, to determine the possible ingestion of plastics by the livestock that feed on post-harvest agricultural residues.

They found that 100% of the soil samples analyzed contained microplastics, as did 92% of the samples of sheep feces studied. This, in turn, translates into concentrations of 2,000 particles of microplastics per kilogram of soil, and 1,000 particles per kilogram of dry feces.

This analysis reveals a relevant concentration of plastics and warns about the ingestion of this material by sheep; future studies should analyze how ingesting the plastic affects the organism of these animals.

Despite the negative effects of the plastic and its accumulation in intensive agriculture zones, it is very difficult to do away with that material since techniques such as the use of mulch film enable savings in water and pesticides; these prove to be determining factors in semi-arid zones with scant rainfall, as is the case of the Murcia zone.

Reverting this trend will therefore require a change in paradigm in current agricultural production so as to relegate intensive cropping to a secondary role. The Diverfarming project, financed by the H2020 call of the European Commission seeks, in this sense, to bring about a change in European agriculture towards an agriculture that is more sustainable and respectful to the environment. By means of the combination of crop diversification and sustainable farming practices they seek to look after the planet whilst ensuring the farmers’ economic benefits.


First look at a sustainable agricultural mulch


More information:
Nicolas Beriot et al, Low density-microplastics detected in sheep faeces and soil: A case study from the intensive vegetable farming in Southeast Spain, Science of The Total Environment (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.142653
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Sheep show the contamination by microplastics in the agricultural soils of Murcia (2020, November 25)
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