New FAO report highlights the role of soil organisms in ensuring sustainable agri-food systems and mitigating climate change

World Soil Day event celebrated the unsung “food heroes”

4 December 2020, Rome - Soil organisms play a crucial role in boosting food production, enhancing nutritious diets, preserving human health, remediating pollution and combating climate change, but their contribution remains largely underestimated, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said today in its report on "The State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity". The report was launched on the occasion of World Soil Day, marked on 5 December.

Despite the fact that biodiversity loss is at the forefront of global concerns, the biodiversity that is below ground is not being given the importance it deserves and needs to be fully taken into account when planning interventions for sustainable development, the report says.

"Soils are not only the foundation of agri-food systems and where 95 percent of the foods we eat is produced, but their health and biodiversity are also central to our efforts to end hunger and achieve sustainable agri-food systems," said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu at the World Soil Day ceremony today.

However, the FAO chief pointed to the decline in soil health and numerous ecosystem services they provide. To avoid dramatic consequences this trend may have on food security, nutrition, climate change and sustainable development, he called for urgent actions to unlock the potential of living genetic resources in soils.

In his remarks, Qu also highlighted the need for establishing an efficient global soil information system in line with digital agriculture and innovations in environmetrics, to protect our "silent, dedicated heroes" as he referred to soil organisms.

"As a Chinese proverb says: Soil is the Mother of all creatures on earth. Do not forget the Mother when you are getting nourishment from," the Director-General said.

Soils are one of the main global reservoirs of biodiversity. They host more than 25 percent of the world's biological diversity. In addition, more than 40 percent of living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems are associated with soils during their life cycle.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of Convention on Biological Biodiversity, in her video address to the ceremony, said: "We urgently need to recognize that soil biodiversity is indispensable to food security and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Soil biodiversity underpins the productivity and resilience of agriculture, making production systems and livelihoods more resilient to shocks and stresses."

The Glinka World Soil Prize and the King Bhumibol World Soil Day Award winners announced

During the ceremony, the Glinka World Soil Prize 2020, named after the pioneering Russian scientist Konstantin D. Glinka, was awarded to the Italian agricultural scientist, Luca Montanarella from the European Commission. The Glinka gold-plated medal was presented to the winner by the FAO Director-General. Montanarella is recognized as an active promoter of soil awareness in Europe and worldwide, supporting the transfer of scientific knowledge on soils into policy development.

Presenting the monetary reward, Victor Vasiliev, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to FAO, stressed the importance of promoting agroecological approaches in farming which give more attention to enriching soil biodiversity. He cited organic farming, no till farming, crop rotation and conservation farming as good examples of such techniques.

The King Bhumibol World Soil Day Award, named after the late King of Thailand, was conferred to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), for its commitment to raising awareness of the importance of healthy soils. Her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, will officially present the prize to ICAR in Bangkok in January 2021.

Thanawat Tiensin, Permanent Representative of Thailand to FAO, said that the current pandemic showed us how precious and fragile our health is, and to protect it we need to start from our soil. This in turn requires protecting its biodiversity.

In the framework of World Soil Day 2020, FAO together with International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS), and the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) has also announced the winners of the scientific children's book contest on Soil Biodiversity.

The first prize went to "The science and spectacle of Soil Life by Roly Poly" by JiaJia Hamner (freelance, United States) and Sharada Keats (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, United Kingdom). See here the full list of winners.

Laura Bertha, President of the International Union of Soil Science, who announced the winners, said that soil degradation is the most insidious challenge, and to overcome it, our activities should focus on educating children and young people.

The event also saw the launch of the Armenian Soil Information System.

Threats to soil biodiversity

The new FAO report defines soil biodiversity as the variety of life below-ground, from genes and species to the communities they form, as well as the ecological complexes to which they contribute and to which they belong, from soil micro-habitats to landscapes.

The role of soil biodiversity through the ecosystem services they provide is critical for agriculture and food security.

For example, soil microorganisms transform organic and inorganic compounds releasing nutrients in a form that plants can feed on. In addition, soils diversity contributes to improving the control, prevention, or suppression of pests and pathogens.

However, soil biodiversity is threatened by human activities, climate change and natural disasters. The overuse and misuse of agrochemicals remains one of the major causes of soil biodiversity loss, thus reducing the potential of soil biodiversity. Other causes include deforestation, urbanization, agricultural intensification, pollution, and salinization.

Soil biodiversity and human well-being

Soil microorganisms have a significant potential to mitigate climate change. They play a key role in carbon sequestration and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The report finds that farming activities are the biggest source of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide gases emitted by soils.

Soil biodiversity supports human health, both directly and indirectly. Several soil bacteria and fungi are traditionally used in the production of soy sauce, cheese, wine, and other fermented food and beverages. Plants produce chemicals such as antioxidants that stimulate our immune system and contribute to hormone regulation. Soil microorganisms can also help prevent chronic inflammatory diseases, including allergy, asthma, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, and depression.

Since the early 1900s, many drugs and vaccines have been derived from soil organisms, from well-known antibiotics such as penicillin to bleomycin used to treat cancer and amphotericin for fungal infections. In a context of increasing diseases caused by resistant microorganisms, soil biodiversity has enormous potential to provide new drugs to combat them.

The way forward

Generally, there is a lack of detailed data, policies and actions on soil biodiversity at local, national, regional, and global levels. In order to better understand the threats to soil biodiversity and implement relevant policies and regulations, it is crucial to invest in harmonized soil biodiversity assessments worldwide, standardize sampling and analysis protocols to enable the collection of large comparable datasets, and promote the use of efficient monitoring tools to record changes in soil biodiversity.

The publication also underscores the need to promote innovative technologies in soil management. For instance, new molecular techniques using next-generation molecular sequencing allow a better understanding of soil organisms and the effects these organisms may have on associated cropping systems. 

Photo: ©FAO/Matteo Sala
Soils are essential to life on Earth. Their protection is of the utmost importance to ensure the future of agri-food systems and the provision of key ecosystem services.