2015: the International Year of Soils

Article, 09 April 2015

The United Nations has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. The aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.

Central Malawi: Belia Sikelo farms groundnuts using 'conservation agriculture', a set of practices including no-till farming, designed improve soil structure and help resist erosion. (Photo: T. Samson/CIMMYT)

The UN has formally launched 2015 as the International Year of Soils in El Salvador. The key goal for the year is to create awareness about the role of "healthy soils for a healthy life".

With 95 per cent of food directly or indirectly produced on soil, soils are vital for food security and nutrition, in addition to the provision of key ecosystem services. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that globally, soils are in danger, due to the expansion of cities, deforestation, unsustainable land use and management practices, pollution, overgrazing and climate change. The current rate of degradation threatens the ability to meet the needs of future generations.

According to the FAO:

  • Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production
  • Soils are the foundation for vegetation which is cultivated or managed for feed, fibre, fuel and medicinal products
  • Soils support our planet's biodiversity and they host a quarter of the total
  • Soils help to combat and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle
  • Soils store and filter water, improving our resilience to floods and droughts, and
  • Soil is a non-renewable resource; its preservation is essential for food security and our sustainable future.

The FAO is working on range of initiatives, including launching the Global Soil Partnership, which will facilitate knowledge exchanges on sustainable management and use of soil resources. Find out more about the International Year of Soils.

The FAO has also produced two infographics focusing on 'Healthy soils for a healthy life' and 'Soil as a non-renewable resource, the preservation of which is essential for food security and our sustainable future'.

IIED's work on soils

Many of IIED's key areas of work cut across the essential messages highlighted above, including our work on agroecology, food and agriculture, biodiversity, adaptation to climate change, and drylands.

Specifically related to soils, our substantial drylands programme of work looked at how pastoralists and farmers managed dryland ecosystems. Over 25 years, IIED and its partners have gathered evidence and shaped policy, particularly around pastoralism, natural resource management, soil fertility and land tenure. Of particular note is the 'Managing Africa's Soils' series, which discusses research results on soil fertility management in sub-Saharan Africa.  

We have tried to change the narrative that casts pastoralism as a backward, irrational livelihood that takes place in fragile unproductive ecosystems and creates a catalogue of problems for non-pastoralists. One highlight is the "more people, more trees" project that worked to restore degraded soils and build more resilient cropping systems. It showed that simple, low-cost soil conservation measures can empower local farmers to restore their lands and improve the fertility of their soil.

In other areas of IIED work, traditional knowledge has often generated new techniques to improve soil fertility and moisture. Our work in Peru's Potato Park developed new ways to prepare land to maintain soil moisture. Farmers co-managing the potato park share different land management methods that help conserve soils including the "No till" cultivation techniques, Stone Lines and Fanya Juu techniques.

Also of note, a key publication, "Virtuous circles: values, systems and sustainability" draws upon soil cycles to argue that productive systems need to follow a more natural circular approach to provide food and other resources sustainably.

Finally, IIED director Camilla Toulmin is co-chair of the Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European scientists who work to enable better European government support of national and regional agricultural development and food security priorities in Sub-Saharan Africa. In December 2014, she called for urgent action across sub-Saharan African soils if it is to continue feeding the continent.

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