ISN’T it strange that we have sent a spaceship to study soil on Mars but we still don’t really know how soils on Earth work?
Although we can grow crops in soil-free systems, there is something soil conveys to the taste of our food which cannot (yet) be replicated by synthetic means. While the first antibiotics were isolated from soil microbes, we’ve done little to explore what other useful drugs might be waiting below ground. Even though the world’s soils are a huge carbon store (three times more than in the atmosphere), we do not understand how this carbon helps regulate the world’s climate. And did you know that soils contain more organisms than tropical forests or the oceans (one teaspoon of soil can contain one billion bacteria), but this diversity is largely unclassified.
While writing this article, my husband pondered what football would be like without soil, or for that matter golf or lawn tennis? Many of us gain pleasure from grass sports or working with soil in our gardens and allotments but most of us take soil for granted, which raises questions: Why are we so ignorant about our soils and what are we doing about it?
Soil management in Scotland
In Scotland we have been very successful in working our agricultural soils; we hold the world record for winter barley yields (12.2t/ha in 1989). However, soil management in Scotland and elsewhere is now far broader than just food production. Sustainable soil management practices are being introduced across Scotland’s catchments to improve drinking water quality. Peat soils in our blanket bogs are being altered to restore these rare habitats and to capture soil carbon to meet government targets for climate change.
However, more than 40 per cent of the world’s soil is severely degraded as a result of past pollution, mismanagement, poor land use choices and urbanisation. Governments are recognising the need to improve our soils to secure not only food production but also the quality and availability of water resources, the survival of rare habitats and species and even to regulate our climate. Solving these pressing issues is central to tackling poverty and sustainable development.
This year the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) established the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils to advise world governments. It is currently working on how to include soil use and management in future global sustainable development goals. It is surprising to realise that the much heralded Millennium Development Goals addressing poverty and hunger largely ignored soils – even though more than two billion people are dependent on small scale subsistence farming. Most of these farmers lack access to resources, knowledge or investment to help improve their soils. If we are to feed, clothe and provide water and energy to the growing human population, then degraded soils must be improved.
This means big challenges for everyone working in soils. Well, scientists love a challenge, and at the James Hutton Institute we are at the forefront of new technologies. We have developed a “see through soil” which enables us to watch how roots interact with soil to access water and nutrients.
And CSI has nothing on our scientists who use the most advanced DNA sequencing and biomarkers to fingerprint soils, to identify what they contain, how they change and even where they are from for crime scene forensics.
Our smart phone apps can tell you about soils in your local area. Soil management is being revolutionised by access to information using this sort of technology. However here lies a snag. Many countries do not have the most basic soil information to guide sustainable use and management. Even in Scotland, where we have some of the most extensive soil information in the world, much of this is more than 30 years old. There is an urgent need to invest in generating up-to-date soil information across the world to enable us to effectively target improvements and, critically, investment in soils.
This month, the James Hutton Institute hosted the European Network for Soil Awareness which brought farmers, land managers, teachers, scientists and staff from government agencies and departments together to explore the many issues surrounding soil. At the Aberdeen meeting there were representatives from the European Commission, the UN FAO and international scientists. All this goes to show that, from land managers to politicians, we are recognising that we need to pay more attention to our soils.
• Dr Helaina Black is a senior soil scientist at the James Hutton Institute and UK representative on the Intergovernmental Panel on Soils www.hutton.ac.uk