As we talk endlessly about windmills, solar farms and electric cars, an invisible disaster is occurring right underneath our feet. Bit by bit, our most powerful weapon against climate change is eroding away and we are gradually losing our foundation for a healthy planet. The time to take action and restore the soil is now, say Martin Doeswijk and Laura van der Stelt. What better time to start than on World Soil Day?
The soil forms the foundation underneath our homes and offices, the source of all our food and the ultimate protector against the harshness of our climate. It provides essential ecosystem services that make flora and fauna healthy, so they can make us healthy in turn. In other words, the soil is literally and figuratively the foundation of our very existence - yet we do not treat it as such. Pollution, intensive land usage and non-diversified agriculture eliminate the essential organisms that help the soil recover. The use of heavy machinery compresses the soil. By paving residential areas and laying tiles in our backyards, we prevent rainwater from penetrating the soil. This causes the soil to dry out and increases salinisation. The soil is gradually turning into a dry and lifeless environment, which has a major impact on life above ground.
Every five seconds, an area the size of a football field is lost to erosion. Once-fertile land turns into an arid desert. A poor soil means poor people, leading to hunger, despair and millions of refugees and giving rise to conflicts and extremism. These are global issues that are slowly starting to impact our daily lives - even closer to home.
“Due to a lack of greenery, we suffered a lot from heat stress in urban regions these past three summers,” Laura says by way of an example. “Even in the Netherlands, which is known as the land of water, water started to become scarce, which forced us to treat our available supply with the utmost care.” That may sound like a relatively minor issue, but bigger consequences are beginning to take shape. “As a result of the lower ground water level, peatlands are drying up and collapsing,” Martin says. “Many cities are built on these peatlands. Houses or entire parts of a city may start to subside, with all due hazards and consequences. On top of that, the collapse of peatlands releases a ton of CO2, which further exacerbates the effects of climate change.”
Our current method of soil usage - agriculture included - is simply not tenable, Martin explains. These past few summers, Dutch farmers were hit hard by the drought. “It is quite simple: if we carry on this way, we have another sixty harvests to go. After that, the soil all over the world will be completely depleted.”
Martin and Laura know it is high time for a change. It is time to stop seeing the soil as something to be used however we see fit, but rather as natural capital that will help us build a safe and healthy future. “A healthy soil is by far the most powerful means we have to maintain a healthy climate,” Laura says. “A healthy soil is a natural storage place for carbon, which is released through the roots of plants. CO2 disappears into the ground, which cools down the planet. Furthermore, a healthy soil is like a sponge. It soaks up and retains water, which makes it easier for us to cope with water surpluses and shortages. Soil life is essential; a single handful of healthy soil contains as many organisms as there are people on Earth. This biodiversity creates healthy ecosystems, which in turn result in healthy flora and fauna and healthy people. By working together to restore the soil, we can use nature's help to cope with climate change or curb its effects altogether.”
Global change calls for political involvement, e.g. by incorporating sustainable soil usage in laws and regulations and stimulating the transition towards biological agriculture. “Even with just a few small, easy steps, we can have a major impact on our own living environment,” Martin explains. “TAUW can play a valuable role in this. At the moment, we have more than four hundred passionate soil experts in six European countries, as well as eight hundred experts in other fields and extensive knowledge of innovative techniques. Our main strength is our ability to utilise our knowledge and expertise for clients all over Europe. We think along in an integral manner. For example, we incorporate soil recovery in remediation projects, but also in urban development and sustainability projects. This enables us to create added value for our clients and our natural environment.”
TAUW does so by e.g. looking beyond the removal of harmful substances during a soil remediation project. “We can add organic material to improve biodiversity in the area or remove the harmful substances in a biological manner,” Martin says. “With our innovative SoSEAL technology, we stimulate natural soil-formation processes in order to strengthen dykes and prevent salinisation in a natural manner. We use drones and innovative measurement techniques to gather detailed information on the state of the soil. With this information, we can offer our clients accurate recommendations.” Laura continues: “We can e.g. use indicators that tell us something about the chemical, physical and biological quality of the soil. Instead of blindly acting, our methods are centred around sustainable development.”
With their vision, knowledge and hundreds of passionate colleagues, Laura and Martin strive to realise sustainable soil usage one step at a time. By raising their clients’ awareness and proactively offering advice, they can set the right example for politicians - as professionals and as citizens. With a bit of luck, we won't need World Soil Day anymore in a few years’ time, because we will all be thinking about the soil every single day.
This animation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations gives a brief introduction on the main drivers, the key functions and challenges of soil biodiversity loss, indicating possible ways to enhance soil biodiversity as a nature-based solution.