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Healthy soil as the foundation for a resilient future – by Mauro Caria

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I was surprised and a little dismayed to discover that even today a large segment of the population does not give importance to the global warming phenomenon or, even worse, do not even believe that global warming exists.

Over the millennia Earth has suffered many significant climatic events; for example think of the Ice Age or long periods of drought – phenomena well known to most people.

In the present day, due to a number of factors resulting from human activity, so-called ‘climate forcings’ generate further imbalance to what already occurs naturally, and, as many scientists believe – contribute towards global warming.

Increased greenhouse gas emissions – climate forcings – are the worse results of human activity, brought about by increased demands for energy and natural resources, rapid population growth and the impact of developing countries and their requirements.

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Another concern is the lack of high-production capacity soils, which is inextricably linked to an increasing shortage of water, and in turn, desertification.

Desertification and soil desiccation are “the greatest environmental challenge of our time; a threat to global well-being” according to Luc Gnacadja (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification from 2007-2013); he adds “land is our natural ally. But the natural conditions of land and soils are not eternal, and must be protected. Soil is the most significant non-renewable geo-resource we have for ensuring water, energy and food security for present and future generations. Healthy soils are also vital for building resilience and adapting to climate change“.

But soil’s nurturing capacity is often forgotten as the missing link in our pursuit of sustainable development.

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The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that land degradation affects approximately 70% of the world’s rangelands, 40% of rainfed agricultural lands and 30% of irrigated lands. Salinity affects some 30% of currently irrigated lands.

According to European Union data, from the early 1980s onwards a quarter of the Earth’s land mass has been rendered unproductive, and more than 1,000 square kilometres are lost every year for housing, industry or infrastructure.

The European Union also reports that annual energy outputs for residential and non-residential buildings account for approximately 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions produced globally. Buildings sector requires crucial resources such as soil and water in vast quantities, and ultimately generates more pollution and heat dissipation.

Soil is the basis of the majority of human activity such as agriculture, forestry, urbanisation, transport. According to the Italian Pedologist Professor Angelo Aru, an urban plan that disregarded the fundamental importance of soil and its potential and limitations (land capability, land suitability) would no doubt fail.

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It seems simplistic to think that we can solve the problem of sustainable development only through use of alternative energy – photovoltaic, solar power, wind power, insulation etc. These are basic elements, but are only the tip of the iceberg.

The study of soil quality is necessary in order to satisfy the demands of a developing world. Soil is an essential resource. Humans, although part of the terrestrial ecosystem like all other species, might be considered ‘bad consumers’, as all too often we take advantage of this resource in order to achieve maximum, temporary benefits, not caring about restoring its initial fertility.

Soil degradation is the result of activities carried out without proper programming and planning in place. Consequently, soil will decrease or even completely lose its ability to produce: this is the prelude to erosion and even desertification in severe cases.

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What can we do?

Monique Barbut – Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, starting 1 October 2013 – said: “Key is a sustainable intensification of agriculture (…), which embrace healthy soil as the foundation for a resilient future.

To achieve sustainable development it is necessary to preserve the soil. The type of soil should play an essential role in its allocation for usage within forestry, agriculture, commercial and residentially zoned areas, and so on. The urban planning system currently being used in many countries is known as ‘zoning’ – as defined by Modern Architects between the first and second World Wars – and often doesn’t take into account these facts.

Sustainable land management, carried out through the Land Evaluation criteria developed by the FAO in 1976, is also a key element for the prevention and mitigation of soil degradation. Similarly, soil maps defined by using Geographic Information Systems are tools we can use to implement analysis of different soil types.

Land use strategies will take a generation to change, we cannot ignore the consequences if we do not.

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2 Comments

  1. Rita Puddu 15/04/2014 at 12:22

    Very interesting article, full of important and righteous concepts. As a pedologist I’m working on these issues by many years but unfortunately these kind of studies are not applied everywhere. We need of more and more education about “healthy soil”. Articles like yours are essential for this purpose.

  2. alessandro melis 25/04/2014 at 06:49

    I agree 100%. We should talk more about it.

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