Soil Biodiversity: The Invisible Hero

“Soil is the invisible biodiversity hero. We rely on healthy soils for some of the most fundamental ecosystem services, and without them life on our planet would grind to a halt. We share our soils, so I am convinced of the need for common legislation in this area. I am therefore calling on Environment ministers to put in place a sound regulatory framework to protect this most precious resource, and ensure we use it wisely.”

                                                               -   EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik

Flickr: D Sharon Pruitt

Flickr: D Sharon Pruitt

2010 is the UN International Year of Biodiversity. When talking about biodiversity, we often picture in our minds visible flora and fauna such as birds, animals, marine creatures and forests.  We seldom think of the microcosm of life in the earth’s soils that sustains us beyond measure. 



 The European Commission has recently released a report in February 2010 called  Soil Biodiversity: Functions, threats and tools  that really opens one’s eyes to the amazing biodiversity of the soils and its importance in the ecological sustenance of the planet.

According to their Press Release:

Soil is a fundamental element

Soil is a living resource that provides numerous essential services, releasing nutrients in forms that can be used by plants and other organisms. When this recycling function is impaired, agriculture, forestry and ultimately all life on Earth is threatened.

The micro-organisms contained in soil contribute to water purification and help remove pollution and pathogens. The loss of this service would reduce the quality and quantity of ground and surface waters, increasing the risk of erosion and landslides in mountain areas, and of flooding in lowland areas.

Soil also contains the second largest carbon pool on the planet. The loss of soil biodiversity reduces the ability of soils to regulate the composition of the atmosphere, diminishing their role in counteracting global warming.

Soil organisms constitute a major source of chemical and genetic resources. Antibiotic resistance develops fast, so the demand for new pharmaceutical products is almost unending, and soil biodiversity can be an important source. At present, only 1% of soil microorganism species are known.

Current threats to soil biodiversity

 The diversity of soil organisms is under threat from inappropriate agricultural practices, over-grazing, vegetation clearing, forest fires and poor irrigation practices. Land conversion, from grassland or forest to cropped land, results in rapid loss of soil carbon, which indirectly enhances global warming.

Urbanisation and soil sealing are a further threat, with concreting effectively killing the life in the soil beneath.

Existing policies related to soil biodiversity: 

Few countries have strong legislation to protect their soils, and at present no legislation or regulation specifically targeted at soil biodiversity exists at international, EU, national or regional level.

Efforts to conserve Soil Biodiversity in Europe has important lessons for Asia too. Asia is an agricultural hub, with billions of people depending on the soils in some form or the other for livelihoods.  Asia requires a legislative framework to protect soils, a return to organic and biodiverse farming methods which conserve soil while enabling people to sustain themselves.

Some very interesting facts from the report mentioned above:

• One hectare of soil contains the equivalent in weight of one cow of bacteria, two sheep of protozoa, and four rabbits of soil fauna
• Every year, soil organisms process an amount of organic matter equivalent in weight to 25 cars on a surface area as big as a soccer field
• Only 1% of soil microorganism species are known. There are typically one billion bacterial cells and about 10,000 different bacterial genomes in one gram of soil
• Some nematodes hunt for small animals by building various types of traps, such as rings, or produce adhesive substances to entrap and to colonise their prey
• Some fungi are extremely big and can reach a length of several hundred metres
• Some species of soil organisms can produce red blood to survive low oxygen conditions
• Some crustaceans have invaded land
• Termites have air conditioning in their nests
• Bacterial population can double in 20 minutes
• The fact to be ingested by earthworms or small insects can increase the activity of bacteria 
• Soil bacteria can produce antibiotics
• Bacteria can exchange genetic material
• Soil microorganisms can be dispersed over kilometres
• Some soil organisms can enter a dormant state and survive for several years while unfavourable environmental conditions persist
• Fungal diversity has been conservatively estimated at 1.5 million species
• Earthworms often form the major part of soil fauna biomass, representing up to 60% in some ecosystems
• Several soil organisms can help plants to fight against aboveground pests and herbivores

• Ninety per cent of the energy flow in the soil system is mediated by microbes
• The elimination of earthworm populations can reduce the water infiltration rate in soil by up to 93%
• The improper management of soil biodiversity worldwide has been estimated to cause a loss of 1 trillion dollars per year
• The use of pesticides causes a loss of more than 8 billion dollars per year
• Soils can help fight climate change

Amazing, isn’t it! There’s so much we take for granted about the universe beneath our feet. Let’s do our bit to preserve this precious ecosystem by supporting biodiverse, organic farms,  buying organic and pesticide free products, and using synthetic chemical-free fertilisers and compost in our own gardens.



Other links you may be interested in:

EWTT:  Organic Gardening :  Importance of Balanced Soils 

An interesting movie celebrating the soils is Dirt, the movie, the trailer of which you can view below:


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Posted by on Apr 27 2010. Filed under Biodiversity, Organic Farming, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture/GMO/Organic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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