World Soil Day 2020: Keep soil alive, protect biodiversity


A statement by the UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw

Plants, animals and humans – all forms of life on Earth depend on healthy soil. Soil is the basis of all terrestrial ecosystems, supporting our food and water security while playing an important part in reducing the impacts of climate change, yet its status and its biodiversity are often overlooked.

As the world population and food production demands continue to rise, natural ecosystems are replaced by agriculture, energy, mining and urban development. Poor land management decisions lead to widespread loss of soil biodiversity, compromising both the quantity and the quality of food that the land produces. Our ignorance about the importance of soil and the degree to which we take advantage of everything it offers have led to a drastic reduction in the soil quality all over the globe. Here are some sobering facts:

  • Every five seconds, the equivalent of one soccer field of soil is eroded
  • It can take up to a thousand years to produce just two to three centimeters of soil
  • Over 33 per cent of the Earth's soils are already degraded and 90 per cent could become degraded by 2050
  • Currently one fifth of the global population lives and works on degraded agricultural land

The living soil and its biodiversity underpin functioning ecosystems and support productive land-based natural capital. Ecosystem services from soil include food security, mitigation of climate change and water retention. Soil hosts communities of living organisms that contain a large part of the world’s total biodiversity – millions of species and billions of individuals within a single ecosystem. Together, they decompose organic matter, driving nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, preventing erosion, enabling efficient water drainage and storage. Healthy soil has the ability to store and filter 3,750 tons of water per single hectare. World’s soils also contain 1,500 billion tons of carbon in the form of organic matter, two times more than the atmosphere.   

Simply put, a healthy environment underneath the surface is the foundation of biodiversity above the ground. Addressing the loss of soil health and biodiversity includes: 

  • Protecting areas of land as refugia for species and ecological processes – some scholars argue about 50 per cent of the world’s land surface should remain in a natural state
  • Sustainable land management to protect soil ecosystem productivity, restore degraded lands and minimize future degradation through sustainable water management, sustainable forest management, sustainable pastoralism and agroforestry

A mixture of protection, proper management and restoration measures is needed at a landscape scale to ensure the future of a diverse and healthy planet. Actions that help restore terrestrial resources and improve their management offer a multitude of benefits to society, contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals on food and water security, and addressing biodiversity loss together with climate change. This wide array of benefits has been recognized by many countries, resulting in land restoration commitments across international conventions and initiatives, with the combined pledges covering close to one billion hectares. Closer to the ground, evidence has shown that users who adopt soil health principles such as no-till, cover cropping and diverse rotations manage to sequester more carbon, increase water infiltration and improve wildlife and pollinator habitats while harvesting better profits and better yields. 

The best way to celebrate the World Soil Day is to promote the crucial role that the living soil plays in keeping the planet and its inhabitants healthy. Let's recognize the importance of this fruitful yet fragile skin of the Earth and remember that rich soil equals a rich planet.