Though healthy soils are an important element in food production globally, farmers and consumers are not paying enough attention to this "silent ally," FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said Thursday, on the eve of World Soil Day.
Healthy soils not only support food systems, they support ecosystems, playing a key role in the carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to floods and droughts, Graziano da Silva said.
Events on Friday in Rome, New York and Santiago de Chile will kick off the UN's Year of Soils, celebrated in an effort to raise awareness and promote more sustainable soil use.
"Today, we have more than 805 million people facing hunger and malnutrition. Population growth will require an approximately increase of 60% in food production. As so much of our food depends on soils, it is easy to understand how important it is to keep them healthy and productive," Graziano da Silva said.
"Unfortunately, 33% of our global soil resources are under degradation and human pressures on soils are reaching critical limits, reducing and sometimes eliminating essential soil functions."
FAO estimates that a third of all soils are degraded, due to erosion, compaction, soil sealing, salinization, soil organic matter and nutrient depletion, acidification, pollution and other processes caused by unsustainable land management practices.
Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person will in 2050 be only one-fourth of the level in 1960, FAO said.
It can take up to 1,000 years to form one centimeter of soil, and with 33% of all global soil resources degraded and human pressures increasing, critical limits are being reached that make stewardship an urgent matter, Graziano da Silva said.
Calling soils a "nearly forgotten resource," he called for more investment in sustainable soil management, saying that would be cheaper than restoration and "is needed for the achievement of food security and nutrition, climate change adaptation and mitigation and overall sustainable development."
Related: 5 Steps To Boost Soil Health
At least a quarter of the world's biodiversity lives underground, where, for example, the earthworm is a giant alongside tiny organisms such as bacteria and fungi. Such organisms, including plant roots, act as the primary agents driving nutrient cycling and help plants by improving nutrient intake, in turn supporting above-ground biodiversity as well, FAO said.
Better management can assure that those usually unnoticed organisms boost soil's ability to absorb carbon and mitigate desertification, so that even more carbon can be sequestered.
Currently, data on soils is very often outdated, limited in coverage, and fragmented in nature. One of FAO's priorities is to establish a global soil information system that could assist with reliable data and information the decision taking on soil management.
FAO has embarked on a host of initiatives, including launching the Global Soil Partnership, which has rolled out the Healthy Soils Facility as its operational arm.
Click the image above to see full infographic (credit: FAO)