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Opinion: Environment

Saving Soils for People and Planet

Ebunoluwa Ijeoma Ajobiewe Ebunoluwa Ijeoma Ajobiewe

Ebunoluwa Ijeoma Ajobiewe, Ambassador for the NextGen Ag Impact Network (NGIN) and advocate for youth in agriculture, underlines the importance of protecting soils for human and environmental health. 

World Soil Day on 5 December is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of soils to not only the environment but also human well-being. In a growing world where over two billion people are affected by food and nutrition insecurity and 95 per cent of our food comes from the soil, we can no longer afford to mismanage this earthly element. Fertile soils are a non-renewable resource that cannot be recovered within a human lifespan. 

A complex narrative

Growing up, I was accustomed to having the soil around me. My family’s food and dietary needs were supplemented with vegetables from our garden and meat from chickens raised in the same environment. I had food on my plate, yet I had a complicated relationship with the soil. Topsoil was something we could play with outside, but it had no place within the house because it could mean more cleaning or crying if you were unlucky enough to get some in your eye during a sandstorm. It was only through my education that I began to understand the many components of soil. I can still remember the pie chart my teacher used to describe the composition of soil as 45 per cent minerals, 25 per cent water, 25 per cent air and five per cent organic matter.

I truly realized that the soil is alive when I planted my first maize and vegetable seeds and watched them grow, and when I viewed living soil organisms under a microscope for the first time. I realised that these tiny creatures wiggling inside the petri dish made their home in the soil beneath my feet. Soil organisms are critical to the efficient functioning of the ecosystem and important for nutrient cycling, decomposition, primary production and agronomic performance.

Photo: Courtesy A. Troccoli

Where food begins

Plants, animals, humans and the planet depend on the quality and health of the soil. This comprises many facets, including active carbon, total carbon and soil respiration. To understand the status of a certain soil or undertake a comprehensive assessment of soil health, the mineral nutrients composition, as well as ecological and biological activity, must be taken into consideration. Healthy soil should function as a vital living system, maintain environmental quality, sustain biological productivity and promote the health of the various organisms that depend upon it.

However, statistics from both FAO and IPBES reveal that about one-third of the world’s soils are already degraded, and over 90 per cent could become degraded by 2050 if we do not act. This degradation is propelled by natural and human-induced factors like erosion, loss of soil nutrients, acidification and pollution occurring worldwide. 

Photo: FAO (2020)

How can we make a difference?

There are many actions people—from farmers to youth, policymakers and more—can take to save soils and a number of resources to build understanding.

Farmers are in constant contact with this key resource and can harness the benefits of soil biodiversity. They can use practices such as diversification of crop types, agroforestry, high-precision management of nutrients and minimised tillage to conserve soil. In addition, the practice of regenerative agriculture principles, according to the World Economic Forum, could mitigate the loss of topsoil and aid the restoration of damaged soil for small and large-scale farmers. 

In its first year of existence, the NextGen Ag Impact Network (NGIN) has engaged over 200 young people in practical, in-depth discussions around regenerative agriculture alongside the impacts of agri-food education, school gardens, youth in agriculture and food security advocacy towards a sustainable food future. This is at the core of our mission. Similarly, the Global Soil partnership raises awareness and builds capacity through creative contests for children and prizes for innovative research.

The World Soil Charter recommends actions for individuals, the private sector, the scientific community, governments and international organisations to support the sustainable management and restoration of the world’s soils. These include personal stewardship of soil resources, advocacy and knowledge sharing, creation of socio-economic conditions that favour proper land tenure, facilitation of access to soil information and financial services, effective legislation and implementation of regulations. 

However, if we hope to save soils for humanity and the planet, there is a need for all stakeholders to do more. Right where you are, you can contribute to stopping biodiversity loss by becoming a soil advocate, avoiding the use of pollutants and recycling. For example, nearly 50 per cent of household waste can be composted to nurture our soil.

I am committed to enlightening the next generation about the importance of soil health and I will do my best to ensure that my actions above ground support belowground ecosystems. What will your soil promise be?

Header Photo: © 2014 CIAT / Stephanie Malyon

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