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10 May 2019

This week the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity was released. The report has implications for land and soil management globally, with degraded soils impacting significantly on biodiversity loss and healthy soils playing a key role in supporting biodiverse habitats and ecosystems. This piece outlines why the soil microbiome – the ‘skin of the earth’ – is so important, and builds on the report’s recommendations for sustainable land management to support and protect the earth’s biodiversity.

Following the report, many publications have focused on soil as a key to reviving our threatened species and mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration. This piece focuses on the potential of soil, its history and possible future support through public policy, whilst Tony Juniper  - former head of WWF, Chair of Natural England and friend of SSA – spoke on R4’s Today programme about the need for farming to work together with nature to produce healthy soils and tackle this ‘emergency situation’, to go in to this challenge ‘in a positive and determined way.’ Listen again from 2.21.

This New Scientist comment piece warns against the perils of not reading beyond the headline. In what could be positive news for our soils, the author reveals the ‘100 remaining harvests’ figure isn’t based on any published hard evidence, with contacted scientists suggest it would be nigh on impossible to set a figure for such an ‘agricultural armageddon’ due to the complex nature of soil. He states: “The boring reality is that while soils in some parts of the world might be in decline, others are not.”

New research published in Nature Scientific Reports has found that a hormone produced by plants under stress can be applied to crops to alleviate the damage caused by salty soils, enabling test plants to increase their growth by up to 32x compared with untreated plants.

Air Quality News has reported on a study from the University of East Anglia that has found soil bacteria are able to build the only enzyme known to destroy nitrous oxide, a significant contributor to global warming. The findings yet again indicate that soils could be a key component in mitigating climate change.

Two companies have teamed up to provide growers in California with biochar to supplement their soil, aiming to improve soil health in order to meet the State’s targets of healthy and resilient natural and working lands for sustainable public benefits and to meet Climate Commitments. “Soil health is critical if we’re going to feed a growing population” they said.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of British Columbia have found that adding bio-fertilisers may not contribute to soil health or crop performance. The study is significant as the inoculant industry is worth millions of dollars, but with no discernable effects from the products farmers may be wasting their costly investment in additives; and there is concern around extreme variation in impact of inoculant, coupled with a lack of knowledge of long term effects on the soil and wider environment.

Where losing your soil means losing your livelihood: an exploration of improving soil management and restoring soil fertility in ‘the poorest nation on earth’ – Niger. In the face of extremely degraded soils in an area that relies on its agricultural productivity “It is indisputable that Niger should reverse unsustainable agricultural practices, but how realistic is this when the very livelihood of Niger’s people depends on extracting the maximum benefit from the soil?”

A documentary released this week in the US, the Biggest Little Farm, contains some key lessons for US agriculture according to the Union of Concerned Scientists – including, at number 1, that soil is paramount. Charting one couple’s mission to establish a successful nature-friendly farm, the film spans their 7 journey from dead land to healthy, fertile soil via cover crops, compost tea, manure and much more.

It also clarifies the big picture: ‘it’s not fair or realistic to expect farmers to make up for the damage caused by industrial practices and the public policies that have incentivised them. Shifting agricultural policies to help farmers diversity the landscape and rebuild their soil is a smart investment for the future.’ Watch the trailer here.