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

© Provided by The Guardian
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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AOC hits back after Betsy DeVos warns ‘free college’ push is ‘socialist takeover of higher education’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos slammed calls to “cancel” student debt or make college free, making a case this week against what she called a “socialist takeover” of education — and prompting a fiery rebuke from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

DeVos, who almost certainly will be replaced once President-elect Biden is inaugurated, has been a lightning rod for controversy since her tenure began in 2017; she’s pushed deregulation and aimed to increase due process on college campuses, to applause from conservatives and harsh criticism from Democrats.

But with an incoming administration likely to take the Department of Education in a sharply different direction, one of President Trump’s longest-serving Cabinet secretaries made one last case against “total government control” of higher education Tuesday at the 2020 Federal Student Aid Training Conference. 

“Policies should never entice students into greater debt. Nor should they put taxpayer dollars at greater risk. There are too many politicians today who support policy that does both,” DeVos said. “Still more advance the truly insidious notion of government gift giving. We’ve heard shrill calls to ‘cancel,’ to ‘forgive,’ to ‘make it all free.’ Any innocuous label out there can’t obfuscate what it really is: wrong.”


She continued: “The campaign for ‘free college’ is a matter of total government control. Make no mistake: it is a socialist takeover of higher education. Now, depending on your personal politics, some of you might not find that notion as scary as I do. But mark my words: none of you would like the way it will work.”

She added that college counselors could turn into essentially “rationers” of “state-approved higher-education options.” Students, DeVos warned, might not be eligible to attend certain schools or degree programs. DeVos also said that there may be cases in which a “quota for ‘free college’ students is full” and counselors are forced to tell students “that they now have to pay full price.”

“Ultimately, nothing is ‘free.’ Somebody, somewhere pays the bill,” she said. “And the bill is coming due. What we do next in education policy—and in public policy writ large—will either break our already fragile economy, or it will unleash an age of achievement and prosperity the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., reacted on Twitter to DeVos’ remarks, mocking the education secretary’s comments.

“Tuition-free public college is a dangerous socialist takeover of higher ed, as opposed to the far superior capitalist takeover of higher ed, which reliably buries millions of Americans in trillions of dollars in debt & graduates them into low paying jobs without good healthcare,” the “Squad” congresswoman wrote.

Biden’s campaign website advocates several reforms related to higher-education. These include eliminating tuition for all students attending public colleges and universities whose families have a household income of less than $125,000, improved student loan forgiveness for public servants, significantly cutting student loan payments to 5% of discretionary income over $25,000, and zero for those making less than $25,000. 

During the Democrats’ 

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Federal judge rules students have no constitutional right to civics education — but warns that ‘American democracy is in peril’

In an extraordinary decision that referenced President Trump’s tweets to postpone the November presidential elections, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith said the public school students who filed the lawsuit were not on a “wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process.” Rather, he said, they were issuing “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.”

“What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril,” he wrote (see opinion in full below). “Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”

The class-action lawsuit filed two years ago by 14 named students and their parents said that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) and state education and legislative leaders had failed to provide them with an “education that is adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”

That failure, the lawsuit said, violated their constitutional rights under different parts of the Constitution that they said guaranteed them the right to an education that prepares them to be active citizens. The lawsuit said the defendants had “downgraded the teaching of social studies and civics, focusing in recent decades on basic reading and math instruction” and “neglected professional development of teachers in civics education.”

But Smith said in his ruling last week that in regard to the contention by students that their constitutional rights included a right to civics education, “The answer to that question is, regrettably, no.” He said, however, that the students “should be commended for bringing this case,” believed to be the first of its kind in a U.S. court.

“It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies,” Smith wrote. “The court cannot provide the remedy plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the court adds its voice to plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and an expert on constitutional law and education law, criticized the ruling, saying: “State courts across the country routinely answer these types of questions. The notion that a federal court cannot act, when states have otherwise failed to do so, is inconsistent with the history of public education.”

There has long been concern about the lack of comprehensive civics education in America’s schools, especially during the past few decades when education reform policy was focused on raising standardized test scores in math and

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Education Department warns about ‘national security risks’ posed by Chinese funding on campus

The Department of Education released a new report on Tuesday with details on its wide-ranging investigation into foreign funding on campus, including specific warnings that U.S. university partnerships with foreign adversaries, most notably China, could pose a risk to national security.

“American higher education is a critical human and technological strategic resource. The intellectual dynamism created by our nation’s historic commitment to academic freedom, free inquiry, and free speech on campus has substantially contributed to America’s economic and national security,” the 34-page report from the Education Department’s office of general counsel noted. “Accordingly, for decades, foreign state and non-state actors have devoted significant resources to influence or control teaching and research, to the theft of intellectual property or even espionage, and to the use of American campuses as centers for propaganda operations and other projections of soft power.”

The agency argued that “under Secretary Betsy DeVos’ leadership, the Department has, for the first time, taken concrete steps” to enforce Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 on foreign funding.

The Education Department specifically warned that U.S. institutions of higher education “regularly work with foreign entities known or suspected to present national security risks” in a somewhat-redacted section focused mainly on the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on U.S. campuses. Investigators lamented that “institutions have directly entered into agreements with foreign governments, even repressive governments that are often hostile to American national security interests, such as China.” The names of specific schools were largely redacted within the report.

The agency warned that “chief among these security concerns” is U.S. universities partnering with the “heavily state-influenced” Chinese technology giant Huawei, one of the largest telecommunications providers in the world, that “became a household name not only because of its products’ international presence but because of these products’ potential enablement of foreign espionage.” The report noted that Huawei’s corporate structure includes a CCP committee that exerts influence from the Chinese government, and it also laid out at least $75 billion in support from China’s government, all meant to advance “Huawei’s global prowess” and to make its presence “a potential tool of the Chinese government and grave national security concern in the U.S. and abroad.”

The Education Department noted that one school “reported nearly $1 million of agreements” with Huawei while another “has held nearly $11 million in contracts and agreements with Huawei since 2013, ranging from research agreements to donations for specific [redacted] research projects and programs.” The report warned that “across these investigated universities, many of these Huawei agreements and gifts strategically concerned sensitive topics like nuclear science or those related to competitive industries like robotics, semiconductors, and online cloud services” and that Huawei “made several hundred thousand dollars of donations towards [redacted] applied physics research” at one school and toward “cutting-edge research projects” at another.

The report noted other Chinese entities involved on U.S. campuses, including Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba contracting with one school “to develop new algorithms for crowd surveillance capabilities.” Investigators noted that Alibaba’s leader, Jack Ma,

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Small Asteroid May Hit Earth Before Election Day, Neil deGrasse Tyson Warns


  • A 12-foot asteroid may hit Earth a day before the elections
  • 2018VP1, a refrigerator-sized asteroid, is too small to cause possible harm to the planet
  • The NEA is set to zip by the planet, if not hit it, on Nov. 2 at 7:33 a.m. EDT

As Americans prepare to cast their votes on Earth, an asteroid is making its way towards it just a day before Election Day.

Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has warned his followers in an Instagram post about a Near-Earth Asteroid possibly hitting Earth on Nov. 2. In his post, Tyson said a refrigerator-sized NEA, known as 2018VP1, is making its way towards the planet at 25,000 mph. 

The said NEA is currently included in the European Space Agency’s Risk List. However, the size of the asteroid is not big enough to cause any harm to Earth, noted the famed astrophysicist.

“It’s not big enough to cause harm. So if the World ends in 2020, it won’t be the fault of the Universe,” Tyson humorously concluded.

Scheduled to meet the planet at 7:33 a.m. EDT on Nov. 2 (Monday), the NEA could get as close as 7,688.04 kilometers from the Earth’s surface, according to the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies’ (CNEOS) Close Approach Data Table. 2018VP1 could get as big as 12 feet in diameter — a size still relatively small to pose significant harm to Earth.

The renowned scientist isn’t the only one reassuring people about the NEA’s close approach. According to a tweet from NASA’s Asteroid Watch (@AsteroidWatch), 2018VP1 only has a 0.41% chance of entering the Earth’s atmosphere, but even if it did, it would only end up disintegrating due to its extremely small size, thus posing no possible threat to the home planet.

2018VP1 is an asteroid first discovered two years ago on Nov. 13. Considered an Apollo asteroid, this NEA has an Earth-crossing orbit, which means that at a certain point, its orbit intersects with that of the Earth’s.

NASA Asteroid family Mars and Jupiter This artist concept catastrophic collisions between asteroids located in the belt between Mars and Jupiter and how they have formed families of objects on similar orbits around the sun. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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China warns it will detain American nationals following DOJ prosecution of Chinese scholars: report

The Chinese government has repeatedly warned American officials that they could possibly detain United States nationals in China due to the Justice Department’s prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

a flag on the side of a building: China warns it will detain American nationals following DOJ prosecution of Chinese scholars: report

© iStock
China warns it will detain American nationals following DOJ prosecution of Chinese scholars: report

The sources said that the message, which has been issued through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and multiple other channels, says that until U.S. officials drop charges against the scholars, Chinese officials may arrest Americans currently residing in the country.

According to the Journal, the sources confirmed that over the summer, the U.S. began detaining Chinese scientists conducting research at American universities over charges of concealing to U.S. immigration authorities their active duty statuses with the People’s Liberation Army.

The Journal had reported on the arrests in August, along with allegations from U.S. officials that Chinese diplomats were using these scientists as part of an intelligence-gathering scheme.

After the arrests, China closed its Houston consulate in July and removed the remaining military scientists who were in the U.S.

In response to a request for comment from The Hill, a State Department spokesperson did not directly address the recent reported threats made by Chinese officials. However they said the department warns “U.S. citizens traveling to China about the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, in particular, the exit bans imposed on U.S. citizens.”

The spokesperson continued to say that on the State Department’s website, the agency warns “U.S. citizens that business disputes, court orders to pay a settlement, or government investigations into both criminal and civil issues may result in an exit ban which will prohibit your departure from China until the issue is resolved.”

“Even individuals and their family members who are not directly involved, or even aware of these proceedings, can be subject to an exit ban,” the spokesperson added in the statement.

The news is just the latest development that adds to the United States’ tense relationship with China amid the coronavirus pandemic.

President Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the outbreak and its fallout.

The virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China.

Before the virus outbreak, both countries were locked in a bitter trading war, with Trump at one point threatening to impose tariffs on the country if he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were not able to make a deal.

The State Department most recently updated its travel advisories for China and Hong Kong on Sept. 14, saying that it was now urging U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to these areas “due to COVID-19 and risk due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

The September advisory also warned that Chinese government officials may detain citizens of other countries “to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”

John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, told the Journal that the agency was “aware that the Chinese government has, in other instances, detained American, Canadian and other individuals

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