University of Maryland Extension

2015: International Year of Soils

Image Credit: 
Sara BhaduriHauck

I think it’s safe to say that all of us in the farming community agree that agriculture is one of the most important endeavors undertaken by our society. “If you ate today, thank a farmer!” is one of many recent buzz-phrases that isn’t only catchy but also true! Farmers and farming are things we couldn’t live without, and in recent times our community has been trying to bring this fact into the public eye.

Farming is important, yes – but in our haste to make that known we often overlook what makes farming possible: sun, water, and soil, among other things. In an effort to bring soils, in particular, to the forefront, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils.

Soils, in my opinion, are really underrated. Lots of people don’t even recognize the difference between “soil” and “dirt”. (Dirt is what the dog brings in on his paws or what you suck up in the vacuum. Soil is the dynamic skin of the Earth!) But just as recognizing the importance of farming is crucial to its continued success, its equally crucial that we recognize the pivotal role that soils play in our lives.

Most notably to those in farming, healthy soils are the starting point for plant-based agriculture. But soil has many other important roles, too. It is the growing medium for almost all vegetation – including plants we use for feed, fiber, fuel, and medicine. Although you can’t see them, millions of different organisms call the soil their home. Soils actually host a quarter of all the biodiversity on the planet Earth. Soils also play a key role in the carbon cycle, which helps the Earth combat and adapt to climate change, and they store and filter water.

According to the FAO, “our soils are in danger because of expanding cities, deforestation, unsustainable land use and management practices, pollution, overgrazing and climate change.” Did you know that soils are a non-renewable resource? These intricate bodies formed over millions of years by microscopic interactions between minerals, organic materials, organisms, water, and air. Once a soil becomes displaced or exhausted, it’s no longer able to support agriculture. That’s why conserving soil is so important.

The FAO has listed six specific objectives for the International Year of Soils: raise awareness among civil society and decision makers; educate the public; support effective policies and actions for the protection of soil resources; promote investment in sustainable soil management activities; strengthen initiatives in connection with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process*; and advocate for rapid capacity enhancement for soil information collection and monitoring at all levels. (*The SDGs is an agreement of the United Nations to develop a set of international development goals.)

This year, I challenge you to expand your gratitude and advocacy for agriculture to include a specific recognition of soils. “No farms, no food” is a true adage, but so is “no soils, no farms”!             

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