Feeding the world with soil science?

The open-source journal SOIL of the European Geosciences Union is not just open source but also interactive. After a ‘traditional’ peer-review process is completed, scientific papers are posted on-line for the wider community to react to and comment on them. I was invited to contribute a piece about the contribution of soil science to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2): End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.  Euphemistically, the paper is entitled: Feeding the world with soil science: embracing sustainability, complexity and uncertainty. You are most welcome to have a look at it and leave your comments, questions and suggestions.

The paper revolves around the idea that feeding a growing and wealthier population, while providing other ecosystem services and meeting social and environmental goals, poses serious challenges to soil scientists of the 21st Century. In particular, three dimensions inherent to agricultural systems shape the current paradigm under which science has to contribute knowledge and innovations: sustainability, complexity and uncertainty. The current model of agricultural production, which is also often the source of inspiration to propose solutions for future challenges, fails at internalising these dimensions. It simply does not provide the necessary means to address sustainability, complexity or uncertainties. Part of the problem is that these are soft concepts, as opposed to hard goals, and so their definition and their translation into concrete actions is always subjective. In my view, in order to propose viable solutions to reach SDG2 soil science must contribute the necessary knowledge to:

(i) produce food where it is most needed;

(ii) decouple agricultural production from its dependence on non-renewable resources;

(iii) recycle and make efficient use of available resources;

(iv) reduce the risks associated with global change; and

(v) restore the capacity of degraded soils to provide ecosystem services.

This paper examines what the concepts of sustainability, complexity and uncertainty mean and imply for soil science, focusing on the five priorities enunciated above. It also summarizes and proposes new research challenges for soil scientists of the 21st Century.

Soil restoration

Particularly the last point, on the restoration of degraded soils (that occupy currently 25% of the land available for agriculture) is one of the key lines of action that I discuss in this paper.

The figure (click to enlarge) describes in a simple way the process of soil degradation, from left to right, and that of soil restoration, right to left. Restoration measures may result after time in soil conditions that are inferior to the original soil quality. The capacity of soil to restore its properties, or a management practices to facilitate that, is referred to as hysteresis of soil restoration (from Tittonell et al., 2016).


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