FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

Soil degradation? Timiryazev Academy students may offer a solution

A major student conference this week in Moscow indicates that young scientific minds are focused on finding solutions to the global problem of soil degradation.

For two consecutive days, 4-5 December 2017, FAO and the Russian State Agricultural University - Timiryazev Agricultural Academy held the “Williams Readings” conference, named for renowned Russian and Soviet agrologist Vasily Williams. The topic was “Degradation and protection of soil.”

“Soil is an exhaustible natural resource, and within our lifetime it is not renewable,” said Eugenia Serova, who heads the FAO Liaison Office with the Russian Federation. “However, despite the apparent value of soil in our daily activities, we witness its degradation. This is largely due to mismanagement and demographic pressure that leads to unsustainable and inadequate use of this precious resource.”

An auditorium full of students majoring in soil-related issues listened as Dr Serova presented key elements of major research papers produced by FAO experts.

Professor Ivan Vasenev, head of the Ecology Chair at the Timiryazev Academy, presented a report on the ecological function of soils, illustrating with an example of how it affects human health. In the city of Moscow there are about 300 freshwater springs, he said. Today, only three of them can be used as sources of clean water. In the past, soils served to purify water, while today they contaminate it.

Reports presented by students were evaluated as a contest, with undergraduate and postgrad students from 21 universities in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan participating. Student reports dealt with various aspects of soil malaise, describing physical, chemical, and biological types of degradation and defining methods for protecting Earth’s natural heritage. On the final day, Serova presented awards on behalf of FAO to the authors of the best student research papers.

This week’s “Williams Readings” event concluded a four-part series of FAO-organized events contributing to the 2017 Year of the Environment in Russia. In April 2017, FAO spearheaded an experts’ discussion on “smart agriculture” (precision farming technologies) at Timiryazev Agricultural Academy. The second event – a roundtable-webinar on “Effective use of water resources in agriculture and agroecology” – was held in June. The third, devoted to aquaculture and rational use of marine biological resources, took place in October.

V.R. Williams Soil-Agronomic Museum

Vasily Robertovich Williams (1863 – 1939) was the son of an engineer, a citizen of the United States who had emigrated to the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century. The young Williams later became a prominent Russian and then Soviet agrologist and agronomist. He is one of the founding fathers of agronomical pedology.

In the 1880s, Williams began compiling materials for what would become the V.R. Williams Soil-Agronomic Museum. Today, it is the largest soil musem in Russia, housing more than 750 soil monolith samples, some 2000 samples of soils, a collection of plants, and more than 150 000 exhibit items in total. The most valuable are some twenty samples of arable and virgin lands that were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These samples constitute reference “memorials” of nature that enable scientists to examine changes in the Earth’s soil cover as a consequence of natural evolution and anthropogenic influences.

7 December 2017, Moscow, Russian Federation