‘Soil health key to achieving SDGs’

Small plants growing in soil
A new report says that soil biodiversity, while undervalued, represents real nature-based solutions to address critical issues such as food insecurity, climate change and poverty Copyright: Image by GAD-BM from Pixabay. This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Soil biodiversity is at the centre of achieving SDGs, says FAO report
  • Human health, safe food, climate change linked to soil biodiversity
  • National information systems must include data on soil health and biology

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[MANILA] Healthy soils are vital to addressing wide-ranging global challenges from food insecurity to climate change, but more data is needed to unlock these nature-based solutions, according to a new report released by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

The report includes inputs from over 300 scientists from around the world and defines soil biodiversity as the variety of life below ground, from genes and species to the communities they form, as well as the ecological complexes to which they contribute and to which they belong.

“Soil biodiversity represents [over] 25 per cent of the total biodiversity of the planet, yet we know only about one per cent of it”

Ronald Vargas, Global Soil Partnership

“Soil biodiversity represents [over] 25 per cent of the total biodiversity of the planet, yet we know only about one per cent of it,” Ronald Vargas, secretary of Global Soil Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative backed by FAO, tells SciDev.Net.

Soil biodiversity is at the centre of achieving many of the SDGs, but its contribution remains largely underestimated, the report argued. While none of the SDGs directly refers to soil, many of them, such as food security, water scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss and health threats are closely linked to or dependent on soil biodiversity.

“We do not know much about soil biodiversity, yet its loss is due to unsustainable human practices,” Vargas notes.


The report, published 5 December, points to deforestation and fires as some of the largest overall threats to soil biodiversity, causing great changes in vegetation composition in large areas of Latin America and the Caribbean and associated loss of important soil organic carbon in the tropical and sub-tropical grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Five drivers of soil biodiversity loss. Image credit: FAO.

Meanwhile, across the Southwest Pacific, which includes the Small Island Developing States, agricultural intensification and invasive species are major threats to soil biodiversity. In Asia, where the status of soil biodiversity varies immensely, climate change presents new threats, affecting highlands and coastal areas. Other major threats include urbanisation, pollution and salinisation.

Threats to soil biodiversity are alarming given their potential applications, says Vargas.  “It can help us in agriculture in order to produce with less agrochemicals (synthetic fertilisers and pesticides), it helps us to have safe food, it is crucial for bioremediation of polluted soils, its role in human health is substantive, also in climate change — its potential is huge,” says Vargas.

Rainer Baritz, a soil expert at the European Environment Agency, tells SciDev.Net: “This assessment is an up-to-date treasure of knowledge. It is particularly timely and needed because there is still no systematic soil biological monitoring anywhere in the world.”

“Generally, there is a lack of detailed data, policies and actions on soil biodiversity at local, national, regional and global levels,” says a media release by FAO. It says the report highlights the need to promote innovative technologies in soil management such as next-generation molecular sequencing to enhance understanding of soil organisms and their potential effects on cropping systems.

According to Vargas, few countries in the world collect soil biodiversity data and information. “That limits the perspective and gives us a call,” he says. “How can we manage what we do not know? We need to invest in evidence and that includes soil biodiversity as part of the soil surveys and national information systems.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.