The latest episode of the Thrive podcast takes a close look at the ground beneath our feet. Soil, on which terrestrial life depends, is often ignored precisely because it is everywhere and yet invisible. Healthy soils contribute so much to human well-being, from nutritious food to clean water, and yet the soils of more than a fifth of all cropland, pasture, forest and woodland are degraded to some extent. Degraded soils, apart from being unable to meet the needs of the people who depend on them, also emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change.
How, then, can we best restore degraded soils? Sessions at Global Soil Week 2015 in Berlin, co-organized by the Water, Land and Ecosystems research program of CGIAR, provided a platform for people to share different approaches, each of which has something to offer.
On the ground, local communities in Malawi have restored tree cover and embraced beehives, protecting the soil and watershed and providing an extra income stream. The government of Malawi is moving away from a reliance on simple mineral fertilisers, which often exacerbate soil degradation, and offering farmers seeds of fertiliser trees that add nitrogen and carbon to the soil, provide fodder for livestock and eventually supply building materials and charcoal.
Surveys in Ethiopia have shown that soils often lack trace elements such as boron and zinc; add those to simple mineral fertilisers and farmers, who had no use for mineral fertilisers that didn’t work, discover the value of improving their soils. And while the contributions of localised restoration efforts may seem small, taken together they could have a large impact on greenhouse gasses.
Of course, there is still much to be done, not least to persuade governments and development agencies that although more complex soil restoration schemes are more difficult to implement, they are more sustainable in the long run. As the International Year of Soils continues, our report from Berlin offers some encouragement.