The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, paying tribute to the life-giving ground beneath our feet.

"It is difficult to rate the importance of the different soil functions, since all are vital to our well-being to some extent," it says. "However, the function of supporting food and agriculture worldwide is fundamental for the preservation and advancement of human life on this planet."

Most of us know that: no soil, no sustenance. Famines are driven by soil degradation, as poor farming practices lead to soil loss through erosion and leaching of nutrients from the soil. Anyone who has done even a little gardening recognizes how the quality of the soil can change the outcome of the harvest. But soil serves us in so many other ways, FAO points out.

It is difficult to rate the importance of the different soil functions, since all are vital to our well-being to some extent." Photo credit: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

1. Since soil is the basis for plant growth, it contributes to the maintenance of both the natural and planted landscape. It supports the forests, wetlands, jungles, prairies and grasslands that spawn the planet's amazing vegetative biodiversity. Those plants—some of which we are still discovering—provide food, fuel, animal feed, medicine and raw materials for clothing, household goods and other essentials. Plants in turn help prevent soil erosion.

2. Soil also supports animal biodiversity, above and below ground. It's essential to the lives of both wildlife and domesticated livestock. And the soil itself is teeming with a fathomless number of micro-organisms and insects as well as familiar organisms such as earthworms that maintain soil quality, provide nutrients, break down toxic elements and interact with water and air to help maintain a healthy natural environment.

3. Soil is important in providing an adequate water supply and maintaining its quality. Soil and the vegetation it supports catch and distribute rainwater and play a key role in the water cycle and supply. Soil distribution can impact rivers, lakes and streams, changing their shape, size, capacity and direction.

4. The water absorption properties of soil play a role in reducing pollution from chemicals in pesticides and other compounds.

5. Soil provides both the foundation and base materials for buildings, roads and other built infrastructure.

6. Soil holds the key to Earth's history, containing and preserving artifacts of the planet's past, both its natural and its human/cultural antecedents. You can thank soil for those dinosaur fossils every kid loves to see at a natural history museum as well as the relics that tell us how our own human story evolved.

7. And critical to Earth's future, soils and how we use them play an important role in helping us to address climate change. Soil organic matter is one of our major pools of carbon, capable of acting as either a source or sink. Soil contains the fossil fuels that drive climate change when extracted but when left underground give us the chance to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and reach our eventual goal of a zero-emissions world.

The FAO Soils Portal provides a wealth of information about what is being done and what can be done to maintain the beneficial qualities of soils around the globe.


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