World Soil Day - The importance of soil

Posted on December 05, 2022

Together with the rest of the world, we celebrate World Soil Day on 5 December 2022. World Soil Day raises awareness of the important role that healthy soil plays in the food system. One of the major challenges that those involved in food and agricultural production face is soil degradation, and this contributes to the global threat facing food security and nutrition. In this article, we discuss the importance of soil and the steps that we can take to improve soil health.

Anyone who has ever grown fruits or vegetables in their garden knows that there are a few essential elements that contribute to the quality of the product you eventually harvest. Clean water, the right amount of sun, some seeds, and soil. The soil is the foundation where plant life starts, and it needs to have the right balance of minerals and nutrients to provide the plant with the food it needs to grow. These include trace elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulphur which are all essential to plant health.

According to the Status of the World’s Soil Resources report, soil has several functions that contribute to the functioning of the ecosystem. Soil provides a haven for organisms such as bacteria and fungi, that transform organic materials and recycle nutrients. Soil also provides the medium for seed germination and root growth, and supplies nutrients and water to plants. According to the FAO, sustainable soil management has the potential to produce up to 58 per cent more food.

Additionally, soil plays an important role in filtering and storing water, and acts as a buffer for contaminants. Retaining water is essential for improving resilience to drought, and healthy soil with high levels of organic matter can hold up to 20 times its weight in water. Soil also plays a role in preserving our natural and cultural landscape diversity and preserving archaeological records.

Soil is a finite resource. Unfortunately, human activities have contributed significantly to soil erosion and soil degradation. Deforestation, air and water pollution, mining, urbanisation, and farming practices such as overgrazing, tillage and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides are just some of the many activities that aggravate soil degradation and contribute to soil erosion. The impact has been devastating. It takes up to 1000 years to produce 2 to 3 cm of soil and the amount produced cannot keep up with the current rate of soil erosion. It is estimated that approximately 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil are lost to soil erosion annually. Approximately 33 per cent of the Earth’s soil is already degraded, and it is estimated that over 90 per cent will be degraded by 2050.

There are several actions that individuals can take to improve soil health. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are harmful to soil microorganisms and can disturb the balance of natural nutrients. Diversify the types of plants and crops that you plant, to encourage the growth of a variety of soil microorganisms and to give the soil a chance to recuperate nutrients and minerals between harvests. It is also important to limit soil disturbance through practices such as tillage which breaks the soil structure and destroys the aggregate stability.

Soil is an essential part of the food system and we need to make sure that we take care of it before it’s too late. It is, after all, “where food begins”, inspiring the #WorldSoilDay 2022 campaign. This World Soil Day, take time to consider where your food comes from, and what goes into growing that food from a seed into the product on your plate.

- Author Andrea du Toit

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