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Interview with Rosa Poch, newly elected Chair of the ITPS

This week, we sat down with Dr. Rosa Poch, to find out more on her career and expectations from the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS). Rosa Poch is the current Chair of the ITPS for the next three years, an agricultural engineer with a PhD in Soil Science and a Professor of Soil Science at the University of Lleida. 


Q1 So first, some background information, tell us about what drew you to soil science? 

After secondary school, I decided to study agricultural engineering, partly because I liked applied sciences, partly because of some writings of my grandfather, - who was an active member of a farmer trade union at the beginning of last century-, which made me aware of the value of the land. When it came to soil science, taught by Prof. Jaume Porta, I found it fascinating, because I discovered a hidden world that is unknown to most people. Then I decided to follow a MSc and PhD in Soil Science at the U Gent in Belgium and continued my career in this field, mainly as a soil micromorphologist with Prof. Georges Stoops, but also on soil erosion and conservation, soil genesis, or soil rehabilitation, among others. When you try to understand soils, how they behave, how they respond to management or other changes, you see that soils are eventually related to all aspects of our lives.

Q2 As the new Chair of the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils of the FAO Global Soil Partnership (GSP) initiative, how do you perceive this global initiative?

The GSP is a significant step forward to put soils in the agendas once again, after many years of being a subsidiary concept within other fields such as agriculture, forestry or the environment in general. It is very encouraging and exciting to see that soils are considered again as a subject of knowledge and as a resource by itself that has to be taken care of and protected for future generations.

Q3 What are the challenges and opportunities ahead of the ITPS for the next three years?

There are several urgent matters that are on the agenda, first and foremost of all, how to ensure that for the coming 10, 20, 50 years our soils will be able to continue providing food and fuel for the increasing population, as well as maintaining the rest of the functions (nutrient recycler, hydrological regulator, gene reservoir, among others). In relation to it, we must address the role of soils under climate change, as a resource that can be affected by it but also that can mitigate/accelerate its effects. Knowing the how and the how much is really a difficult challenge because soils are intrinsically variable and it is impossible to make global predictions about how they will evolve, since any process is site-specific. The implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management and the Technical Manual for Soil Organic Carbon Management are two examples where these detailed-scale recommendations will have to be developed. 

Q4 What five actions do you consider of paramount importance to improve soil health among the main priorities identified in the ITPS work plan?

They are related to the five pillars of the GSP, and I could not say which of them is the most important. The first one is soil information. Soil science being a relatively young discipline, its body of knowledge is not yet robust enough, or at least not at the level of other sciences. Many efforts have been made in the last years, but there is still a lot of information missing and we still lack a common language to be able to answer the challenges of the previous question. A second action is in relation to soil carbon, since it is directly related to other global issues, such as climate change. Many researchers are working to develop effective ways of maintaining or increasing the organic carbon content, since it ensures several of the recognized soil functions, but I think that we have a long way ahead regarding inorganic carbon dynamics, mainly in arid areas. Related to it, a third action refers to remediation of land degradation processes (erosion, salinization, loss of biodiversity, pollution, sealing, among others). They are already pointed out in the Status of the World's Soil Resources) that will need to be updated in the following years, which will comprise the identification of the processes, its causes, and the monitoring of the results of the measures applied. A fourth action is related to soil awareness. A botanist does not need to explain what is he/she is studying, because everybody knows what a plant is, but we, soil scientists, always need to justify ourselves. This is odd, because all civilizations have recognized the value of soil functions (Mother Earth exists in some way or another in all religions and beliefs), but we have difficulties showing people how to consider soil as a valuable resource that must be taken care of. The last action is how to overcome the political, economical and social constraints we face when trying to apply the recommendations. We indeed know the technical solutions for many of the soil problems; but land tenure systems, traditions, social and economical structures or poverty itself are very often insurmountable walls that prevent their implementation. This is one of the most difficult action because it falls out of our capabilities, and therefore should be undertaken in collaboration with other organisms.

Now, our main challenge is to continue the great work done by previous ITPS members and to position ITPS as the panel on soils providing scientific guidance to the world.

Curious to know more about Rosa Poch and the ITPS Panel of experts?

More information are available here