UN World Soil Day: we can all be the solution to soil pollution

To celebrate UN World Soil Day 2018 we spoke to the Grantham Centre’s soil scientists. They told us some amazing things about soil, and what we can all do to help protect it. 

There is more to soil than meets the eye 

Soil is amazing – and there is far more to it than meets the eye. Did you know that 95% of our food comes from soil? Or that 1 tablespoon of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on earth? Or that it holds 3 times as much carbon as the atmosphere? Soil can help us meet the challenges of a changing climate. 

Our soil is a complex community of organic matter, microbes, fungi, and nutrients that interact with the creatures and crops that live on it and in it. But soil is more than a substrate for things to live in. And soil can be vastly different from one place to the next.

For her article for UN World Soil Day Grantham Scholar Jenny Veenstra argues that soil is best understood as a series of entities. You can can find out more from Jenny by reading Why I Think Soils Are Entities – Not A Set Of Properties

UN World Soil Day: we can all be the solution to soil pollution

The world’s soil faces some serious challenges. 33% of our global soils are already degraded. Combined with climate change, this means an increased risk of droughts and floods. Already many rural people cannot provide enough food for themselves and are being forced to migrate to survive. Poor food security is also causing millions of children to be malnourished.

So what can we do about it? In conjunction with leading soil scientist and Grantham supervisor Dr Anna Krzywoszynska we’ve created a poster (see above) which explains 5 easy things we can all do to be part of the solution to soil pollution. Here’s the full list.

  1. Don’t seal the soil. Let your soil breath! Don’t cover it with concrete or plastic in your garden.
  2. Don’t use metaldehyde. Poisons used to kill slugs cause huge damage to soil life. From 2020 use of metaldehyde was banned in the UK.
  3. Use peat-free compost. This issue has made the news a lot recently, but many gardeners still use compost with peat in it. Peat supports unique ecosystems and stores carbon. Alternatives are available and many organisations offer advice about alternatives.
  4. Compost your food. If you can, create a compost heap in your garden. Doing this will reduce the impact of food waste and create a home for all sorts of wildlife.
  5. Compost garden waste. As above this reduces waste whilst creating an environment for all sorts of insects and fungi. Plus it saves you money. Look here for an easy guide to making a compost heap from the RSPB.

Could Plastic Be The Answer?

But the problem of soil pollution won’t be solved by individuals alone – we need action on national and international levels. The UN calls for a profound change in the global food and agriculture system. Without such change we can’t feed the 815 million people who are hungry today. Worse, an additional 2 billion people are expected to be undernourished by 2050. Creating sustainable food production systems is crucial, and a core aspect of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In his piece for UN World Soil Day our Director Professor Tony Ryan offers what might seem a counter-intuitive solution to soil pollution – plastic. In his article he argues that plastic technology could be a big win for soil health. Find out more by reading Could Plastic Be The Solution To Soil Pollution?

Soil and the Grantham Centre

Joe Llanos in the field with his worms

A number of our scholars and supervisors are working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2, 12, and 15. All these goals include protection of the world’s soil.

Firstly, Dr Anna Krzywoszynska (who helped make out poster). She was given funding by us from our GO Fund to start an interdisciplinary soil workshop. As a result of this Anna launched the Soil Care Network, a global network of academics. 

Secondly, Grantham Scholar Jenny Veenstra is assessing the potential of no-­till farming. This type of farming maintains similar yields to conventional tillage. And it aids the development of soil structure, whilst enhancing soil and water conservation. Despite these benefits, European no tillage adoption rates remain very low. Jenny is supervised by Prof Manoj Menon who is interested in physical and hydrological processes in soils; in particular, the influence of biota.

Next meet Grantham Scholar Joe Llanos who studies earthworms. Worms can significantly improve the quality of the soil and could play a key role in curbing worldwide soil decline. However information on worm diversity and behaviour is lacking. Find out more in this 2020 interview with Joe: Meet the earthworm CSI.

Finally, Grantham Scholar Magdalena Matysek is examining soil carbon and climate change in the Arctic. This project that will deepen our understanding of how carbon is lost from Arctic peats as the climate changes.

Grantham Centre, COP and soil loss

Speaking at the all important COP in Paris in 2015, experts from the Grantham Centre revealed that nearly 33% of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution in the last 40 years.

Our people produced a briefing note that explained the problem. You can find out more and read the briefing not here: Soil loss: an unfolding global disaster – Grantham Centre briefing note.