World Soil Day - 'Soils: Where food begins'

05 December 2022, Martin Doeswijk and Edna Rodriguez Riveros

During this year’s World Soil Day, Martin Doeswijk (International Soil Director) and Edna Rodriguez Riveros (Project Manager Soil & Groundwater) share their opinion and vision on vital soil, the relation between healthy soil and healthy ecosystems, and the short-term and long-term goals to be pursued (inter)nationally.

This year, World Soil Day focuses on ‘Soils: Where food begins’. The campaign of the United Nations aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human wellbeing by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

This year’s theme for World Soil Day is ‘Soils: Where food begins’. Can you both, Martin and Edna, tell us more about the importance of healthy soil, also in relation to our food supplies?

Martin: “Globally, there is a soil crisis. Within Europe, two thirds of its soil is threatened with severe degradation. It is so bad, that if nothing is done, there will only be 70 harvests to go before the soil is depleted worldwide. It can then no longer provide us with food either.

The last decade has seen a growing policy interest in improving soil quality, as the awareness of environmental issues and the damage from intensive land use, farming and industrial degradation has become clear. Consequently, government policies are now starting to reflect the need for soil and groundwater protection and development. These issues are now becoming much more strategically important for our clients.”

Edna: “For me, there are two aspects to soil, the first is to protect our soil to give it the possibility to recover and play its role. And the second is to realise that we are using the soil in very bad conditions, overexploiting the soil to produce more and more food and very often this food ends up directly in the garbage without being consumed. Sustainable use of our soils is a great challenge for our modern societies.

Governments are aware of the needs, but it will take time to have an operational regulation, everyone can start thinking about another way of using the soil and a better way of consuming what it provides us with.”

What is the relation between healthy soil and healthy ecosystems?

Martin: “Soil is an inseparable part of our ecosystem. Without soil (and not just in the sense that we can settle and move on it), no life is possible. Soil is literally and figuratively the foundation of our existence. It is the foundation, the source of our food and the protector against the vagaries of climate. In densely populated Europe, soil is often used for multiple functions simultaneously. However, this is only possible if the soil is vital and the land use does not detract from but rather enhances its vitality.

It is that healthy ecosystem that allows us to retain and purify water, where we can store our carbon, where we can work on natural pest control and recycle nutrients. A vital soil is essential for sustainable food production and helps us to fight climate change.”

What is the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem?

Martin: “Considering the importance of soils for a wide range of functions that are vital for life, it is our obligation to future generations to embrace the challenge of protecting and restoring soil health. Obvious negative consequences of not doing so would be, for example, compromising food safety, eliminating microorganisms that have proven to be a source of medicine for human health, or lacking the resilience to cope with climate change.”

Edna: “Our challenge is to find a new equilibrium in the global ecosystem and a very important part of that is soil restoration. If we want humanity to continue to exist, we must act now, otherwise we will be responsible for our own extinction.”

What is TAUW’s view on healthy soil? And why is it important to TAUW to protect soil, use it sustainably and restore soil?

Martin: “The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future. But society is disconnected from the soil system. People are unaware of the importance of healthy soils, despite our dependency on them. I would like people to understand more about soils, and the ecosystem services that soil provides us with. The soils deliver nutrients for our crops, they are a reservoir and filter for pure drinking water, trees grow on them, they clean our air and capture CO2, we build houses and create vegetable gardens on them. Our whole infrastructure of roads, canals and dikes is built upon and in the soil. So, soil provides us with many raw materials and energy sources, much more than most people are aware of. Healthy soil is not only good for ecosystems, but also for cleaning our air and capturing CO2. For instance, soil can even help our industrial clients with managing their carbon footprint.

To show what goes on in the soil and how important it is, we have partnered with the film Onder het Maaiveld (translated: ‘Below Ground Level’). Once you have seen this film, I think you cannot help but think that everyone is committed to healthy soil.”

Last year, On 17 November 2021, the new strategy was adopted by the European Commission and it stated that the goal is to ensure that all soil ecosystems in the EU are healthy and resilient by 2050.
What is the current status? And what are the necessary next steps according to you both?

Martin: “Tackling major societal issues such as climate change, biodiversity, but also soil abuse requires vision, courage and time. The European Commission is very ambitious; there are 100 living labs and lighthouse projects coming up. A European soil law is also in the pipeline."

Edna: “In Belgium, soil legislation is regional. It complicates decision-making, but on the other hand, it can sometimes help with implementing good initiatives, as is the case for Brussels. The Brussels region has adopted an ambitious strategy to protect soil: ‘Good soil’. Construction projects will now take into account the recommendations to develop one or more ecosystem services and address one or more threats to soil. This is done by using the IQSB (soil quality index for Brussels). The objective is an optimal balance between the future use of soil (e.g. for construction, industry, etc.) and healthy soil quality.”

Martin: “In the Netherlands, a parliamentary letter ‘Water and Soil Steering’ was published on 25 November 2022. This letter states that the first steps towards this will be taken in the Netherlands. I am admittedly cautious, but hopeful!

The aim is to achieve vital soil; a soil that provides its valuable services such as water buffering and nitrogen absorption. Fertile soil for agriculture can continue to provide these services to us and future generations undisturbed. Soil can also provide a carefully ordered, optimally used underground space, where functions such as soil energy and groundwater resources do not negatively affect each other. This also involves, for instance, maintaining soil layers and protecting natural soil treasures such as groundwater resources and the preservation (in situ) of archaeological heritage.”

What do we strive for short-term and long-term?

Martin: “The next step to be taken in the short term is to join hands at the European level for a common approach; this will also prevent inaction because someone else is not doing it either. Moreover, we need to ensure that the vision being unfolded now is also translated into concrete action. After all, implementation costs not only a lot of money, but also a lot of time and resources. Concrete actions consist of taking healthy soils as a starting point in all developments, as well as honouring many local initiatives, because that is where impact can be made.
By 2050, soil protection, sustainable use and soil restoration will have become the norm for all of us, in all our projects involving soil, including healthy soil.”

How do we as TAUW want to contribute to this goal? How does it reflect in our projects (inter)nationally?

Martin: "We have tremendous passion and expertise, and we do great work for our clients. That makes us proud and even more motivated to pursue our dreams. I hope to inspire and motivate clients, colleagues and people in our network and I hope that this spark will spread to others. My soil colleagues and I want to set a good example and give soil the attention it deserves. Therefore, it is inconceivable to me that it is World Soil Day only once a year.”

Offical Word Soil Day video of the United Nations | Healthy soils: the foundation for healthy food and a better environment:


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