Under your feet: Why soil matters

As we observe World Soil Day today, take a moment to look under your feet and understand the complexity of soil. Let’s take this opportunity to raise awareness about soil pollution and make a pledge to stop soil pollution

On December 5, we celebrate World Soil Day. This year we are celebrating World Soil Day with the theme “Be the Solution to Soil Pollution”. Most of you may not have been aware that such a day even existed or perhaps even question the reason why the world even dedicates an entire day to celebrate soil.

We as soil scientists who have devoted our professional careers to studying the soil through this article would like to take this year’s World Soil Day as an opportunity to discuss the importance of this thin layer of our planet—soil.

Humankind has a conflicting relationship with the soil.

In English, “dirt” and “dirty” are synonyms for unclean, calling a man or a woman “dirty” is a terrible insult. A baby’s dirty diapers are described as “soiled”. What more, soil is often used to refer to “tarnishing someone’s image” or “bringing discredit to” someone or something. That’s there.

But if we dig deeper into human consciousness, we find a different story. For Hindus, the Panchtatva is the universal laws of life. Everything (including life) is composed of five basic elements, these are: Akash (space or sky), Vayu (air), Jal (water), Agni (fire), and Prithvi (earth or soil).

In the Judeo/ Christian tradition, the first two human beings on the planet were Adam and Eve. In Hebrew (the original language of the Biblical Old Testament), the name Adam translates to “earth” or “soil” and Eve translates to “life”. The imagery portrayed is that human life originally derived from the soil. It gets even deeper, the English terms “human”, “humanity”, “human beings” are rooted in the Greek word “humus”, the fertile black topsoil. While we use the words soil and dirt as derogatory terms, we literally define ourselves as soil.

Soil is important; here are a few reasons why.

Soil is absolutely critical for the survival of our species, of all living life on the planet, really. Over 90 per cent of all food produced in the world come from the soil and a greater percentage of the world’s the freshwater passes through the soil.

Arguably, climate change is the greatest threat to our species. Despite so much mitigation efforts by the global community, soil is frequently forgotten. However, soil holds roughly two and a half times the amount of carbon as the combination of carbon held in the atmosphere and all of the plants and animals combined.

Soil is also the greatest reservoir of biodiversity on the planet. In one pinch of soil, there are over one billion individual organisms and one million unique species, most of which we no almost nothing about. In one handful of soil, there are more living organisms than the total number of human beings that have ever walked on the planet.

As all of our antibiotics have been derived from soil microorganisms, the secrets to fighting all kinds of diseases are just under your feet.

Soil is no less important to Nepal. Nepal is a land of immense beauty and diversity. The mountains, plants, animals and cultures of Nepal are celebrated and protected.

Nepali culture is deeply interrelated with soil. Right from birth to death, we need soil (naming ceremony, birthday celebration, soiling on Asar 15, local healing, medicine, rituals, etc). So let’s not overlook the importance of soil.

The Government of Nepal has set ambitious targets for increasing the levels of organic matter in soils, this is essential to ensure that the soils that have sustained Nepali civilisation for generations will continue to sustain future generations. We need to encourage farmers and land managers in Nepal to maintain terracing on steeply sloped lands to protect against soil erosion and appropriately use agrochemicals including, pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, to improve soil health and crop productivity.

Soil has been polluted by heavy metals, effluents from chemical industries, indiscriminate use of agrochemicals, urbanisation without proper planning, networking of roads even in rural areas without considering the carrying capacity of the soil, etc.

The United Nations says most of the pollutants originate from human activities, such as unsustainable farming practices, industrial activities and mining, untreated urban waste and other non-environmental friendly practices.

We need to value the cleansing properties of soil, particularly riverine soils, and prevent these areas from continuing as the dumping grounds and sewers of Kathmandu and other cities. If we take care of our soils, our soils will take care of us.

On this day, the day when we celebrate soil, when we walk around in our daily lives, take a moment to look under your feet where you will find the marvel of the beauty and complexity of soil. Let’s take this opportunity to raise awareness about soil pollution and make a pledge to stop soil pollution. Soil pollution is a worldwide problem; it degrades our soils, poisons the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Guerena is soil scientist-systems agronomist at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center; Gaihre is soil scientist at International Fertilizer Development Center; and Vista is senior soil scientist at Nepal Agriculture Research Center