Category Archives: Published articles

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).


Soil science and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

What can soil scientist do to contribute to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Plenty of things indeed. The achievement of UN SDGs depends largely on ecosystem services and many of these depend in their turn on key soil functions.  This is well explained in this graphical abstract published by Keesstra et al. (2016) in the open-source journal SOIL of the European Geo-scineces Union.

Graphical abstract (for print) 20151223 Slide1

In this FORUM paper we explore and discuss how soil scientists can rise to the challenge of reaching the UN SDGs both internally, in terms of our procedures and practices, and externally in terms of our relations with colleague scientists in other disciplines, diverse groups of stakeholders and the policy arena. To meet these goals we recommend the following steps to be taken by the soil science community as a whole:

(i) Embrace the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as they provide a platform that allows soil science to demonstrate its relevance for realizing a sustainable society by 2030.

(ii) Show the specific value of soil science: Research should explicitly show how using modern soil information can improve the results of inter- and trans-disciplinary studies on SDGs related to food security, water scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss and health threats.

(iii) Given the integrative nature of soils, soil scientists are in a unique position to take leadership in overarching systems-analyses of ecosystems;

(iii) Raise awareness of soil organic matter as a key attribute of soils to illustrate its importance for soil functions and ecosystem services;

(iv) Improve the transfer of knowledge through knowledge brokers with a soil background;

(v) Start at the basis: educational programs are needed at all levels, starting in primary schools, and emphasizing practical, down-to-earth examples;

(vi) Facilitate communication with the policy arena by framing research in terms that resonate with politicians in terms of the policy cycle or by considering drivers, pressures and responses affecting impacts of land use change; and finally

(vii) all this is only possible if researchers, with soil scientists in the frontlines, look over the hedge towards other disciplines, to the world-at-large and to the policy arena, reaching over to listen first, as a basis for genuine collaboration.