Soil forms at the interface of the lithosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere and is the foundation of terrestrial life. It is home to a large proportion of earth’s biodiversity and regulates important ecosystem services, such as food provision, flood regulation, and water infiltration, among others. In addition, soil functions and services are fundamental to our existence and expansion.
The use of soils for agricultural proposes goes back 13,000 years (Pereira et al. 2018) and has been responsible for the flourishing of several civilizations. However, unstainable soil management and consequent degradation have also led to the decline of multiple civilizations (Nearing et al. 2017). Therefore, we need to learn from history and avoid unsustainable practices that can lead to human decline.
Modern society faces important challenges such as climate change, the unsustainable use of soil by intensive agriculture, and raising consumption. Climate change is increasing the frequency, length, and severity of droughts, reducing water availability and increasing desertification issues. Intensive agriculture is responsible for the unsustainable use of water and soil degradation, especially in areas where water resources are scarce and irrigation levels are high.
This results in the reduction of soil fertility, salinization, and other forms of degradation. Moreover, our consumption patterns are inducing serious impacts on soil resources, especially meat. Most of the grain produced in the world is not directed to human consumption, but to feed a highly expansive meat industry, as shown in the documentary Home, released a few years ago.
More recently, plastics and microplastics have been documented to have a major impact on soil degradation and pollution (Steinmatz et al. 2016); impacts such as these are a result of our consumption choices. Such demands create an intense pressure on soil functions as well as regulating (e.g. urban sprawl, sealing, erosion, water, mining) and provisioning (e.g. food quantity and quality) ecosystem services. Soils and life are indivisible and interdependent and determine societal wealth.
The quality and quantity of soil ecosystem services are crucial to basic human and environmental needs such as food safety and clean air. Without consideration of soil functions and services, it is not possible to achieve sustainability. Services provided by soils in agricultural and forest areas are the base of many economic activities and social stability. Soil ecosystem services are dependent on environmental characteristics and soil functions and are evaluated according to their capacity and our interests.
However, it is important to use sustainable practices to ensure continued ecosystem services from the soil resource. Non-sustainable practices such as monocultures, urban sprawl, and conventional tillage can be responsible for a wide number of disservices (e.g. salinization, compaction, erosion, sealing), degradation of the environment, and loss of soil functions and ecosystem services. On the other hand, a sustainable approach, including forest diversification, organic farming, and crop diversity, can maintain or improve these aspects.
The ability to choose our management practices is in our hands. Humankind must understand that sustainability is linked to the capacity of the soil to deliver ecosystem services in necessary quantity and quality. Efforts should be made to include soil services (agricultural and non-agricultural) in ecosystem services frameworks. Sustainable management is essential to achieve food, water, energy, and soil security.
These findings are described in the article entitled Soil ecosystem services, sustainability, valuation and management, recently published in the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health. This work was conducted by Paulo Pereira from Mykolas Romeris University, Igor Bogunovic from the University of Zagreb, Miriam Muñoz-Rojas from the University of Western Australia, Kings Park and Botanic Garden, and University of New South Wales, and Eric C. Brevik from Dickinson State University.
- Nearing, M., Xie, Y., Liu. Y. (2017) Natural and anthropogenic rates of soil erosion. International Soil and Water Conservation Research, 5, 77–84.
- Pereira, P., Bogunovic, I., Muñoz-Rojas, M., Brevik, E.C. (2018) Soil ecosystem services, sustainability, valuation and management. Current Opinion in Environmental Science and Health, 5, 7–13.
- Steinmatz, Z., Wollmann, C., Schaefer, M., Buchmann, C., David, J., Troger, J., Munoz, K., Fror, O., Schaumann, G.E. (2016) Plastic mulching in agriculture. Trading short-term agronomic benefits for long –term soil degradation. Science of the total environment, 550, 690–705.