Soil: The Forgotten Miracle
Soil is one of the building blocks of life, yet we pay so little attention. Time to shine a light on our forgotten origins.
CEEweb Series: Our Common Ground (1/4)
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: since humankind can recall, we are interrelated to soil. Nevertheless, how much do we know about it? Several hundred years ago, when a big proportion of human population worked in agriculture, people were aware of just how important the soil is. Yet, today, we live in a world where most people are no longer farmers. Nor have any kind of contact with rural life. Currently, 55% of the globe lives in urban areas and, according to the United Nations (UN), this number will rise to 68% by 2050. Ashes to cement, then?
Part of the global drive into cities has meant that we have come to expect food to simply ‘be there’ — from supermarkets to food delivery services. We do not give much regard to where it comes from or how it was made. And fewer is the amount of people that go one step further to think about how one of the building blocks of our planet, soil, supports us.
Soil is a massively rich biodiverse and essential component of how the whole earth can sustain living creatures. As part of CEEweb’s mission to highlight the importance of biodiversity, especially in the wake of the global pandemic in 2020, we have decided to launch a series of articles helping to raise awareness on one of the least developed issues in biodiversity. This is the first in the series and will give an overview of the issue and raise awareness of the work done in the ‘Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas'*.
Soil, what is it good for? Absolutely everything
Soil refers to many things and its meaning can change depending on who you are — a city dweller might think of dirt, while a farmer might think of the nutrients that allow life to grow. Soil, as described in the Atlas, is the ‘living breathing skin of our planet.’ It consists of a mixture of non-living minerals and living organisms that are the results of biological and weathering processes over many millennia. When soil is dug up, the many layers that are revealed show these processes. Parallels can be drawn between these natural phenomena and that of how natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon, are formed through a similar pattern of erosion and dumping of new material on top over many millions of years.
One of the most fascinating parts about soil is just how much variation exists across the globe. The map below shows how geology changes dramatically across the globe. Even within one country, the geological variation can be enormous. With that in mind, one of the biggest drivers of diversity is the climate. In much the same way that climate affects the type of animals and their habitats, it also affects the very foundations that give life to these natural habitats. The climate's effect is varied, having an impact on a number of factors, including temperature (at above, below and around ground level), climatic zones, and precipitation to name a few.
Just as important as the climate are the living organisms who live on this planet (from animals to bacteria). Living organisms are responsible for adding the organic matter, one of the key components of soil, through processes which include excrement and the decomposition of dead roots. Human activity also has an increasingly large impact on the soil through the erecting of land management, cultivation and burrowing animals.
It is these diverse conditions that allow the soil to be the driver of life across the globe. According to the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, soil is responsible for contributing for the ‘provision of food, fuel, fibre, the infiltration, storage and delivery of clean water, the regulation of nutrient cycles and atmospheric composition, and the provision of cultural values.’
The third and arguably most important factor in the formation of soil has been time. Over many thousands of years, just as the planet has undergone significant transformations, so too has the soil that covers our earth. While this may sound intuitive as the whole planet and its atmosphere was changing, the emergence of life could not have been sustained without the rich, widely diverse and specific composition that is soil.
Furthermore, soil also changes over time, and even within a 100-1000-year biological cycle it can undergo full transformations. These changes over time are sometimes natural, as a result of changing conditions, but more recently they have been fueled by humans' changing relationship with the climate. These changes have only accelerated as we have increasingly transformed the face of the earth for our own needs.
This article is the first of the CEEweb series 'Our common ground,' part of a wider drive to help teach people about the importance of soil. We will shortly be publishing more articles on the biodiversity of soil, an in-depth look at its benefits for humanity, the challenges and threats facing this sector, and how can everyone raise awareness about an overlooked and forgotten key aspect of nature that has sustained humanity’s growth on this planet.
*The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, authoring body of the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, aims to bring awareness and educate on the importance of soil in our daily lives. The hope is that by increasing awareness on these aspects, people will have a greater understanding of the need for rich, diverse environments to protect our way of life and our planet. The Atlas was published by the European Commission in partnership with over 20 universities and organisations. It is free for anyone to download.