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Soil scientists have called for more targeted research and strict guidelines to stop what they say is the massive degradation of land and soil around the world, which is contributing to climate change and threatening food security.

The proposal is the outcome of five days of discussions at the International Forum of Soils, Society and Global Change in Selfoss, Iceland, which concluded this week (4 September).

"The soils of the world are degrading," Zafar Adeel, director of the UN University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health, told SciDev.Net.

There is a strong link between soil and land degradation, and climate change, he says.

The forum heard that at least a quarter of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from changes in land use — such as deforestation — in the last century.

And without the cover of vegetation, land becomes more reflective, heating up the air above it, and potentially contributing to global warming. It also loses fertility and the capacity to support vegetation and agricultural crops.

By addressing soils and protecting the land cover and vegetation, you can get a "much bigger bang for the buck" in terms of mitigating climate change, Adeel says, but recognition of this link "is not there at the international level".

The forum is currently drafting a set of guiding principles on land care, and will collate methods and lessons learnt on land care to be made available globally.

It has also proposed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change develops a special report on the link between land degradation and climate change.

Forum participants also called for a better understanding of and capacity for carbon sequestration in soil, recognising the potential to put back 1–2 billion tons [sic] of carbon by restoring degraded ecosystems.

Boshra Salem, from the Department of Environmental Sciences at Egypt's University of Alexandria told SciDev.Net that degradation of soil and land in already marginally productive land is a significant issue for many developing countries, particularly in northern Africa, the Sahara region and parts of Asia, including China.

Salem said that many of these regions have fragile ecosystems. "Any human interventions, for example grazing livestock, can lead to serious degradation."

"There needs to be more collaboration, especially between countries who share the same land degradation problems," Salem added.