Keeping soils alive and healthy is key to sustain life on our planet

FAO-hosted Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity closes with a call to recognize a vital role of soil organisms

23 April 2021, Rome - The Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) drew to a close with a call to recognize and enhance the role of soil organisms in sustaining life on Earth.

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.

At the closing session, Prof. Rattan Lal, a winner of the 2020 World Food Prize, delivered his remarks on soil health and biodiversity in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. "This is the time for a paradigm shift, and of the realization that the health of soil, plants, animals, people, and the environment is one and indivisible", he said.

Rattan pointed out that the Green Revolution of the 21st century must be soil-based, ecosystem based and knowledge-based rather than driven by increased inputs. The strategy is to produce more food from less land and water while using less fertilisers, pesticides, and energy and with less greenhouse gas emissions, so we can save resources for nature and biodiversity, he added.

To wrap-up, Rattan stressed that restoring soil health is essential and critical to put back on the track the Sustainable Development Goals.

In closing the Symposium, FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo said: "It is evident that the sustainable use of soil biodiversity can really help us address the different challenges we face in food production, in environmental protection, climate and human health."  She underscored that the world needs innovative and effective solutions to address the threatening consequences of soil biodiversity loss, adding that - given its crosscutting nature to provide multiple benefits - we must advocate for soil biodiversity as a key global action.

Way forward

The Symposium brought together more than 5000 participants from more than 160 countries with representatives from governments, scientists and practitioners working in related fields, NGOs, civil society, indigenous peoples, local communities, and land users. Furthermore, the symposium drew special attention to the private sector's work on sustainable agriculture and technology development related to soil.

At the closing session, Ronald Vargas, FAO Soil Scientist and Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, presented the conclusions of the symposium and the way forward informing that the outcome document "Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity" will highlight the importance of soil biodiversity not only for food production, but for enhancing the benefits to all. The document will include biodiversity-based solutions for global challenges, human well-being, health and nutritional food and new medicinal discoveries, including the discovery of new antibiotics.

Participants, stressing the need for filling knowledge gaps and awareness raising on the importance of soil biodiversity,agreed to establish the Global Soil Biodiversity Observatory and its Technical Network of Soil Biodiversity.​

In addition, the Symposium paved the way for executing the Implementation Plan "International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Soil Biodiversity" aiming to enhance resource mobilization and investment in improving soil health.

Keynote spokespersons at the Symposium included FAO Director-General QU Dongyu; Luis Renato Alvarado Rivera, Minister for Agriculture and Livestock of Costa Rica; Tang Renjian, Minister for Agricultu re and Rural Affairs of the People's Republic of China (via video message); Virginijus Sinkevicius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries of the European Union; 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; Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification;  Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity; 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 and others.

A total of 21 renowned speakers, focusing on how policy and scientific evidence can be translated into concrete actions to reduce soil biodiversity loss, stimulated the eight hours of plenary sessions. Furthermore, six parallel sessions focussed on the state of knowledge on soil biodiversity through 96 presentations and interactive discussions. The proceedings of the Symposium containing all the scientific papers presented both orally and in poster format during the Symposium will be published.

Scientific poster contest - winners announced   

FAO together with the Global Soil Partnership announced the winners of a scientific poster contest on soil biodiversity which were voted for by participants during the Symposium.  

The first prize went to Martha Marina Bolaños-Benavides from Colombia for the poster on Biodiversity of arbuscular mycorrhizae and chemical properties in soils of the Colombian coffee zone.

Ontivero R.E. from Argentina came second with a poster on Fungal community assembly in soils of different crops farming in North Argentina, followed by Oswaldo Julio Vischi Filho from UNICAMP in Brazil with a poster on Comparison between soil biodiversity at Rio da Garça (degraded watershed) and Ribeirão Arrependido (preserved watershed). The winners were presented with the Global Symposium prizes.

See the full list of 50 posters here.

Children's stories on soil biodiversity

During the symposium, 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." A collaboration between FAO and IUSS, the book 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", Reyes highlighted the importance of educating and raising awareness of the critical role of soils among children and young people. Download the book here.

Artists brighten up life beneath our feet

During the Symposium, several artists revealed the beauty of the world beneath our feet through their artwork.

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.

Visual artist Suzette Bousema developed a multimedia project ‘Super Organism' in collaboration with Nadia Soudzilovskaia, a soil scientist-professor at Hasselt University in Belgium and Leiden University in the Netherlands, together with her PhD students. The project explores mycorrhizal fungal network - invisible to the naked eye, it is the largest living system that ever existed on Earth. Watch the video 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 adopt the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework,  where it is hoped that soil biodiversity will be included.

About the Symposium

The Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity was 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.

Building off The State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity: Status, Challenges and Potentialities report, 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.  

Photo: ©FAO
Soils host more than 25 percent of the global biodiversity from where 95 percent of the food we eat is produced.