‘We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot’.
Leonardo DaVinci, ~ 1500
Soil is the thin, fragile, non-renewable skin of the planet and home to our terrestrial biosphere. It is an important component of our heritage; it is a precious and living human good. Soil’s mineral component was formed over many millions of years. Its organic carbon is more recent with continuous losses and gains over millennia, and its biological component is more recent still – some was born today. Soil is a major planetary resource providing goods that are crucial to a healthily functioning biosphere and the continuity of the human race. Soil provides a multitude of other services from agricultural needs to the sequestration of carbon needed to counteract global warming. The availability of healthy soil is the limiting parameter in the provision of these services, many of which are pivotal to the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations. How we treat – mostly abuse – soil is determined by national policies, but the soil crisis is a global problem that does not respect national boundaries. For example, slash-and-burn policies in one country produce fog and haze pollution over others: coal burning in one country precipitates acid rain and soil deterioration in others. As a result of anthropogenic abuses, as well as natural and global warming that promotes extreme weather events, Planet Earth is currently experiencing an unprecedented crisis of soil deterioration, desertification and erosive loss that increasingly prejudices the services it provides. Immediate and coordinated action on a global scale is urgently required to slow and ultimately reverse the loss of healthy soils.
Whereas soil may readily be accepted as a common good, soil is synonymous with land which, unlike other common goods such as air, water and fisheries outside of territorial waters, is generally in private ownership. But just because soil may be on land that is under private ownership, this does not mean that it should be treated inappropriately. Moreover, there is an intermediary stage of ownership: ‘common land’ which, although owned, is accessible to the public or specific subsections of the public for use in recreation and enjoyment. Such common lands could also make a significant contribution to One Health endeavours, but we must in future see and treat soil instead as a common good, belonging to all, including other animals and the plant world. As a common good, soil needs an effective healthcare system that protects and treats, and effective economic policies, legislative frameworks and adequate education that enable us to provide effective stewardship of our soil heritage. We will all be stakeholders in the ecosystem services it provides and stewards of its fate. Governments, and especially philanthropists, should massively expand common lands, particularly in and near urban areas, to create land for diverse uses with a soil health focus, including recreation of various sorts, food production (citizen cultivation of food; citizen fruit orchards), education at all levels with diverse plant covers and root systems, carbon inputs including trees, therapy (e.g. animal-assisted/gardening therapies for those suffering stress and mental challenges), plant diversity conservation, pollinator refuges, wildlife refuges and so forth.
A key problem for society to recognise its obligations towards soil is its perception as inert ’dirt’. There is a lack of perception of the link between soil and the food supply; a lack of knowledge about ecosystem services provided by soil and its role in numerous grand challenges, sustainability issues; and the fragility of global soil stocks and their qualities. To remedy this, there is an urgent educational need to help society understand that soil is a dynamic living entity and deserving of our care and protection, that its health needs safeguarding by an effective medical system, and that to fulfil our duty of care, we must understand it and what it does, through education, especially in school. We must develop the philosophy of handing over our soil heritage to the next generation in a better state than we received it from the previous one. To muster an effective response to the crisis, to avoid further deterioration, and to restore unhealthy soils, there is a need for a new and coherent approach, with the creation of:
- a soil healthcare system analogous to public health agencies for effective policy development for land use, conservation, restoration, recommendations of prophylactic measures, monitoring and identification/forecasting of problems (epidemiology), organising crisis responses etc.
- a healthcare system charged with soil care: the promotion of good practices, implementation of prophylaxis measures and institution of therapies for the treatment of unhealthy soils and restoration of drylands.
To enable the development of effective, evidence-based strategies that will underpin the efforts of soil healthcare systems, substantial investment in wide-ranging interdisciplinary research on soil health and disease is mandatory. This must lead to a level of new knowledge and understanding of the soil: biota functionalities underlying key ecosystem services that enable formulation of effective diagnosis/prophylaxis therapy pathways for sustainable use, protection and restoration of different types of soil resources using microbial biotechnology, while advancing key SDGs, especially 2, 3, 6, 7, 13 and 15. Soil stewardship must be subject to a higher authority, scrutiny, oversight and regulation. These conservation/regenerative restorative measures need to be complemented by an educative/political/economic/legislative framework that provides incentives encouraging soil care through:
- education at all levels in soil value, health and loss, to create a soil-literate society able to adopt, support and insist on policies and measures designed to improve soil health
- policies and practices to increase national, local and family food production based on good soil management principles
- creation of a sustainable framework that promotes political engagement and local planning that encourages active stakeholder involvement
- a massive expansion of common lands, especially in and around urban areas, especially through remediation of brownfield sites, and incentivise their productive exploitation and educational application by the urban citizenry.
These systems need to be national, but there is also a desperate need for international coordination and legislation such as the creation of an international (e.g., UN) agency for soil restoration and conservation. Such a group would be responsible for developing internationally accepted practices, monitoring progress and recommending incentives and disincentives for good and bad practices. The development of an international economic framework to incentivise or disincentivise such practices, alongside the elaboration of internationally agreed laws to protect the environment (to define ecocrimes/ecocide/environmental crimes) will also be necessary. The creation of the International Court for the Environment is designed to adjudicate such laws and should be supported.
The soil crisis demands immediate healthcare in the form of global diagnosis, prophylaxis and therapy. We must all be engaged in improving soil health; everyone has a duty of care. The creative application of microbes, microbiomes and microbial biotechnology is set play a pivotal role in the successful operation of soil healthcare systems.