Has the importance of soil health been overlooked?

The FCI previously touched on some of the “mission areas” that the EU has identified as key fields of research and innovation under the €100 billion Horizon Europe framework programme (2021-2027). Today we discuss yet another area, namely “soil health and food”. This domain is intimately linked to the European Commission’s Green Deal, which is aimed at the climate, biodiversity and sustainable food. These are all topics where soil is key, for example because it provides a range of ecosystem services that are important for clean water, recycling nutrients and regulating the climate. The Commission therefore expects that research in this particular mission area will allow the full use of the potential of soils to mitigate the effects of climate change.

In Europe, according to Eurostat, “the Mediterranean is particularly prone to soil water erosion because of long dry periods followed by heavy bursts of intense precipitations […]. In some areas, erosion has reached a state of irreversibility with the complete removal of all soil material”. The growing threat of desertification in the EU has been the subject of a study by the European Court of Auditors, which concluded that 74% of Spanish territory is at risk of desertification. Desertification and drought have also been said to be the source of international conflicts, with some researchers finding that “there is evidence that the 2007-2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria” and that “human influences on the climate system are implicated in the […] Syrian conflict”.

Unlike for example marine life, where most people are aware of its vulnerability, it is often forgotten that soils are a highly fragile system and also a finite source. The United Nations, which celebrates World Soil Day annually on 5 December, notes that it can take 1,000 years to produce 2-3 cm of soil. The agricultural world is already adapting to changing circumstances. Farmers in Spain, who are producing most of Europe’s fruit, are trying to restore the soil by returning to ancient farming practices that are better adapted to the changing weather.

While soil should thus be viewed as a natural, national and strategic asset, according to Esther Ngumbi, substantial profits can also be made from caring about soils. The Croatan Institute has calculated that there are investment opportunities for sustainable food and agriculture for the amount of $321 billion. Research published in Nature also suggests that “improving soil quality is a smart investment”, which seems urgently need as “every year, we damage another 12 million hectares – an area the size of Bulgaria – through deforestation, overgrazing, intensive farming, urbanization and pollution”.

It is key to realize that soil is at the basis of much that we produce, and therefore essential for the production and transportation chain as a whole. As the article in Nature explains, “soil is vital to all industries that use plant or animal products in their supply chains, from fashion to pharmaceuticals and, increasingly, energy. Insurers and investors have a stake – when crops fail, they lose money, commodity prices rise and operations are disrupted”.

Research by the UCL Energy Institute has visualised how thousands of cargo ships currently move across the oceans in such numbers and in such a coordinated way that they resemble buses. We should remember that this complex world of global supply chains, which moves around 11 billion tons of stuff annually, will only function on a sound foundation and cannot continue to exist unless people start to care more about soil maintenance and restoration.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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