Giving a voice to soil organisms – our silent allies in the fight against hunger

FAO-hosted Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity kicks off

20 April 2021, Rome - The Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) kicked off yesterday with a call to preserve this vast community of living soil organisms and the vital ecosystem services they provide.

Soils are one of the main global reservoirs of biodiversity. They host more than 25 percent of the world's supply of this valued resource from where 95 percent of the food we eat is produced. In addition, more than 40 percent of living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems are connected with soils during their life cycle.

Soil organisms play a crucial role in sustaining lives on our planet, said Director-General QU Dongyu in his opening remarks to the symposium. However, he expressed great concern about how soil biodiversity and overall soil health were under constant threat posed by deforestation, land use change, wildfires, soil erosion, pollution, mono cropping, overuse of chemicals, surface sealing and urban sprawl.

The FAO Director-General pointed out to almost 5000 participants at the opening session that to reverse this trend, all efforts to manage, conserve and protect global biodiversity must also include this invisible array of microorganisms beneath the Earth's surface.

To this end, he noted that sustainably managing soil biodiversity and preventing its loss needed to be integrated into global environmental frameworks, including the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, to be adopted at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) and the UN Food Systems Summit.

High-level participation

In his remarks at the high-level opening session, Minister for Agriculture and Livestock of Costa Rica Luis Renato Alvarado Rivera said that agriculture would continue feeding humanity, underlining the importance of keeping soils healthy, while stressing the need to develop innovative technologies to promote soil conservation.

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries of the European Union Virginijus Sinkevicius echoed his remarks noting that the biodiversity in our soil was a vast biological engine, driving the processes that underpin our survival and that this engine needed better recognition.

In his video address to the symposium, Tang Renjian, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the People's Republic of China, highlighted the need for strengthening global cooperation on soil through FAO mechanisms, reinforcing the Global Soil Partnership and stepping up capacity building on soil conservation in developing countries.

Hisham Mohamed Badr, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Arab Republic of Egypt, speaking on behalf of the current COP Presidency held by the Arab Republic of Egypt, emphasized the importance of promoting a coordinated approach to address biodiversity loss, climate change and land and ecosystems degradation. A critical aspect of such an approach is to ensure that the importance of soil biodiversity is recognized and valued, he added.

Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, noted that prevention is better than cure, underscoring the importance of soil conservation and sustainable soil management to prevent biodiversity loss and keep soils healthy.

For her part, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, pointed to the need to fill critical knowledge gaps and promote discussions among policy makers, food producers, scientists, practitioners and other stakeholders to help understand the potentialities and solutions to the threats to soil biodiversity. 

Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO's Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment, provided additional insights into the interconnections of life below and above ground. He spoke about how a healthy soil is capable of providing most terrestrial ecosystem services, contributing to sustainability and human well-being.

Artists brighten up life beneath our feet

During the opening session, photographer Andy Murray shared his passion for documenting and photographing soil dwelling animals from around the world and called on governments to include the protection and sustainable management of soil biodiversity into soil conservation policies. Watch the video here.

Artist Christopher Marley presented a video called "Exquisite creature exhibit" showing how soil animals and insects inspired him to create artwork and how interconnected the worlds of art, nature, and science are. Watch the video here.

Children's stories on soil biodiversity

Laura Bertha Reyes, President of the International Union of Soil Science (IUSS), presented a new book for children entitled "The Magical World of Soil Biodiversity." The book, a result of the collaboration between FAO and IUSS, was reviewed by soil scientists and contains a collection of 10 children's stories from around the world. Calling it "a success of and for the soil scientific community", she highlighted the importance of educating and raising awareness of the critical role of soils among children and young people. Download the book here.

The opening session also saw the participation of Diana Wall, School of Global Environmental Sustainability - Colorado State University, USA; Wim H. van der Putten, Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Wageningen, the Netherlands; Daphne Miller, Department of Family Medicine, University of California, USA; and Felipe Pasini, farmer and journalist from Brazil.

Scientific poster exhibition and contest - voting is open 

During the opening session, an online poster exhibition and contest featuring 50 scientific posters about soil biodiversity was launched. From the first day of the symposium, participants can give their votes for their favourite scientific poster.

The three best posters will be announced on the last day of the Symposium on 22 April 2021. The winners will be presented with the Global Symposium prizes. Vote here.

FAO strategy on mainstreaming biodiversity across agricultural sectors

FAO views biodiversity as the basis of food security and promotes its sustainable use for food security and nutrition, human and environmental well-being and development worldwide. FAO serves as the Biodiversity Mainstreaming Platform to facilitate dialogue and exchanges between governments and other stakeholders regarding the sustainable use, management and restoration of biodiversity across the agriculture sectors.

The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity 11-24 October 2021 (CBD COP15) will review the achievement and delivery of the CBD's Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, where the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will be adopted, together with decisions on related topics including capacity building and resource mobilization. It is hoped that soil biodiversity will be included in this framework.

About the Symposium

The Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity is jointly organized by FAO and its Global Soil Partnership, the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative and the Science-Policy Interface of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

The Symposium's main objective is to fill critical knowledge gaps, identify scalable solutions to global challenges through enhanced soil biodiversity, and promote discussion among policy makers, food producers, scientists, practitioners and other stakeholders on solutions to live in harmony with nature. Ultimately, it aims to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals through the conservation and sustainable use of soil biodiversity. The State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity: Status, Challenges and Potentialities report constitutes the basis for this symposium.

The Symposium will also feature a session focusing on private sector actions on soil biodiversity and soil health and a review of the status of global soil biodiversity. 

Photo: ©Alessandra Málory
Soils host more than 25 percent of the world's biological diversity.