Blog Post

Why do soils need help?

Introduction

Imagine leaving your house in the morning only to return each day to find new marks of distress on its façade. Initially shallow cracks begin to deepen and spread, prompting a growing concern. Is this normal wear and tear, or signs of a deeper issue? This deterioration serves as a powerful analogy for a global issue largely hidden from our daily view: the declining health of the soil beneath us.

If you joined us on our previous article (missed it? Dig into the backstory here), you’ve already started to scratch the surface of why soil deserves our focused attention. Experts warn that at the current pace, we may deplete our soil’s ability to support agriculture within just 60 more years. So, given the rate at which we’re losing this critical resource, can we afford to ignore the growing cracks in our home’s foundation?

As we delve deeper, it becomes evident that the challenges soil faces are not merely superficial wounds but symptoms of deeper neglect. Yet, as with any home in disrepair, potential for restoration remains if we chose to act.

What is threatening soils?

Soil is a chronicle of our planet, with each layer containing thousands of years of history. It takes about 1,000 years to generate just three centimetres of topsoil, showcasing its role as a crucial foundation that supports life through food, fibre, and fuel. Soil is a critical player in the natural cycle, breaking down organic matter, recycling nutrients, detoxifying organic contaminants, capturing carbon, and regulating water.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of higher yields, modern agricultural practices have become a primary driver behind the degradation of soil health. Monoculture–the practice of cultivating a single crop species over large areas–alongside deforestation and excessive ploughing, exacerbates soil erosion. This erosion strips away the vital topsoil, leaving the land vulnerable to degradation. Additionally, the use of heavy agricultural machinery further compounds the issue by compacting the soil, diminishing its natural porosity, and disrupting the essential flow of water and air. This compaction process reduces soil organic carbon levels and depletes fertility, compromising the soil's ability to sustain healthy plant growth.

Moreover, the increasing reliance on intensive tillage methods and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain productivity is problematic. This excessive dependence, along with incorrect application methods, has led to widespread soil contamination. Harmful chemicals leach into the soil, disrupting ecosystems and destroying beneficial microorganisms crucial for soil health. Consequently, the loss of organic matter further exacerbates the issue, undermining the soil's resilience and ability to support vibrant ecosystems.

The detrimental effects of soil erosion extend beyond mere physical loss. Reduced water absorption capacity poses significant threats to soil integrity, particularly during prolonged droughts when the soil's ability to retain moisture is paramount. As global temperatures rise and precipitation patterns shift, the widespread adoption of irrigation systems increases the risk of soil salinization. High salt concentrations inhibit plant nutrient absorption, impeding growth and compromising crop yield.

All these unsustainable agricultural practices, combined with other anthropogenic activities such as deforestation, urbanization, pollution, and natural resource extraction, make humans, who derive 98.8% of their food from the soil, its greatest challengers.

Which are the consequences of land degradation?

Peering beneath the façade of our homes, we encounter the earth’s own foundation facing a silent siege. Land degradation, much like the creeping decay of a neglected house, presents a stark challenge that extends beyond our doorsteps, touching every aspect of our environment and society. Its impacts are multifaceted from an environmental perspective, including the reduction of soil fertility as a primary impact. This decline not only diminishes the capacity of the soil to support healthy vegetation but also undermines agricultural productivity, thereby threatening food production systems. Additionally, it reduces the soil's capacity to act as a carbon sink, a critical ally in our battle against climate change.

Moreover, soil degradation contributes to the decrease in water quality, as eroded soil particles and chemical contaminants are often washed into nearby water bodies such as lakes, rivers ponds and oceans, leading to pollution and ecosystem disruption. This pollution not only affects aquatic life but also poses risks to human health, particularly in communities reliant on these water sources for drinking and irrigation. Land degradation also exacerbates biodiversity loss, as the disruption of soil ecosystems and habitats can lead to the decline or extinction of various plant and animal species. This loss of biodiversity not only diminishes the resilience of ecosystems but also undermines their ability to provide essential services, such as pollination, nutrient cycling, and pest control, which are crucial for maintaining ecosystem health and productivity.

The connections between soils and societal issues are central to the recently developed concept of soil security (McBratney, Field and Koch, 2014). The implications of worsening soil quality are profound, potentially sparking competition for fertile land, which may lead to a rise in poverty, violence and social unrest in countries with weak regulatory systems or power imbalances (Nolte and Ostermeier, 2015).

According to the EU Soil Observatory, an estimated 61% of the land in the EU is susceptible to being impacted by one or more soil degradation processes. This alarming statistic highlights the vulnerability of European soil, with well over half of it at risk of losing its fertility. As stated in the latest main report on the Status of the World’s Soil Resources by the FAO, minimizing or eliminating significant soil degradation is essential to maintain the services provided by all soils and is substantially more cost-effective than rehabilitating soils after degradation has occurred. Recognizing the gravity of actual soil degradation prompts us to ask: What can we do to reverse this concerning trend?

What can we do? - Addressing Soil Degradation

As we shift from identifying the problem to embracing solutions, the path toward soil conservation unfolds as a critical mission for our collective well-being. It’s clear that adopting multifaceted approaches in our land management and agricultural policies is a necessity for survival. This means actively enhancing soil quality, preserving our ecosystems, and securing the sustainability of our natural treasures for generations ahead.

To achieve this, a set of actions could be undertaken, such as halting deforestation, reforesting areas where soil health is poor, proper water management and the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices such as crop rotation and cover cropping to reduce and ensure the sustainable use of inorganic pesticides and fertilizers. These are just a few of the soil conservation techniques aimed at preventing erosion and improving water retention, but there are other alternatives that allow maintaining productivity while caring for the soil: the organic and renewable soil amendments.

How FENIX project will contribute against land degradation

As we near the end of our exploration, we turn our attention back to the bedrock of our homes, a vital element demanding our vigilance and care. Just as a secure home depends on the integrity of its foundation, the vitality of our planet rests on the health of its soil. It’s in this light that FENIX’s initiative becomes critical, addressing the urgent need to rejuvenate and enhance our soil.

FENIX’s groundbreaking work involves the development of soil improvers crafted from bio-waste, including green residues and supermarket organic waste. By harnessing the power of biochar and digestate, FENIX tackles the environmental problems related to agriculture and pioneers a revolution in soil improvement practices, mitigating land degradation and desertification.

The core of our mission is to demonstrate the multiple agronomic benefits of this soil improver. These include boosting soil fertility, enhancing water holding capacity, promoting nutrient uptake and stimulating microbial activity. To corroborate these claims, FENIX will conduct five separate field trials across southern Europe–in Spain, Greece, and France. The goal is a user-friendly product that empowers farmers and cooperatives, marking a step toward reviving nutrient-depleted soils and boosting soil quality and water retention across the European Union. FENIX is dedicated to addressing climate change, fostering energy independence, and advancing sustainable bio-waste practices to protect our soils.

Reflecting on our journey, we recognize the critical role we play shaping the future of our planet. This initiative is a crucial step toward preserving our soil for future generations, ensuring they inherit a world capable of sustaining life.

References:

McBratney, A., Field, D. J., & Koch, A. (2014). The dimensions of soil security. Geoderma, 213, 203-213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoderma.2013.08.013

Nolte, K., & Ostermeier, M. (2015). Land investments: a new type of territorial expansion. https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-55724-7

Kopittke, P. M., Menzies, N. W., Wang, P., McKenna, B. A., & Lombi, E. (2019). Soil and the intensification of agriculture for global food security. Environment international, 132, 105078.

EU Soil Observatory. (29 of February 2024). EUSO Soil Health Dashboard. https://esdac.jrc.ec.europa.eu/esdacviewer/euso-dashboard/

FAO and ITPS (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils). Status of the World’s Soil Resources (SWSR) – Main Report. https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/c6814873-efc3-41db-b7d3-2081a10ede50/

FAO (2022). Saving our soils by all earthly ways possible. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. https://www.fao.org/fao-stories/article/en/c/1599222/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social%2Bmedia&utm_campaign=fao

By: Oria P
Editorial: Lucia Salinas
March 2024