Environmental protection is a frequent, widely debated topic. Gloomy prospects and their supporting figures are commonly reported in a multitude of information about this topic. Most people’s primary association of our planet includes waste, water and air, or even the extinction of species, loss of natural habitats and soil degradation, as stated by those more ecologically aware. Regardless of their order, soil protection evidently and somewhat unjustly always comes last.
From an institutional point of view, soil was the last natural resource included in the environmental protection system, after the established legislative and international agreements on air and water protection, waste handling and biodiversity support. Soil protection became the focus of interest due to the high expectations of its performance.
The aim of this text is not to report disturbing figures and describe some apocalyptic scenario, but draw attention to the significance of soil, and our lack of awareness of its importance when we walk on the soil or use its products as food. We are similarly not aware of the air we breathe 20 times per minute, but in this text we wish to maintain the focus on soil, especially in the modern era of divided attention. Just as we have been taught by the old philosophy as well as the “fortune-cookie” philosophy, we should be aware of the present moment and the world around us. After all, 2015 is the year of soils.
Do we know why soil is important?
Soil is the basis of agriculture due to the fact that almost all food we produce (95%) originates directly or indirectly from soil. At present, soils are expected to provide enough food for the rapidly increased population on the planet.
Soil is a part of our habitat. Every object which surrounds us is situated on the ground, and there is lost agricultural soil underneath each layer of concrete. Except arable land and gardens, agricultural soils also include forests, meadows and pastures. Land can be divided into several types – protected natural areas, urban land, and industrial land.
Soil is a part of lithosphere, a filter between the atmosphere and hydrosphere, and a part of biosphere. It is a complex system in constant movement, absorbing and transforming different substances. There is always an interesting and important process occurring in soils, and it is not merely a dead, static matter.
Soil is a source of food and raw materials. Some plants are used in the textile industry (cotton and flax), as construction materials or objects with multiple use (wood, reed, hemp), and others are used for production of biodiesel fuel (rapeseed biodiesel and sugarcane based bioethanol). Soil is a source of sand, gravel and clay for construction industry. Surface mines of coal and other minerals are positioned on or in the ground.
Soil is a habitat and refuge for animals, but its role in biodiversity is fairly unknown, including the fact that soils are home to a quarter of animal species on the planet. There is a huge number of microorganisms in soils which enable decomposition of organic matter. There is more life in pieces of land the size of a marble than there are humans on the whole planet. If we measured the weight of all microorganisms in a piece of land the size of a basketball court, the result would be the weight of a foal.
Soil is a non-renewable natural resource, which is created during a long historical period, but can be destroyed in an instant. Soil is created from the foundation – host rock under the influence of terrain, climate and living things. Its depth is usually less than 2 meters. Sometimes even a thousand-year period is required for one centimeter of soil to be created. In other words, about 10 cm of soil has been created since mammoths walked the Earth, 5 cm since the construction of Egyptian pyramids, or 2 cm since the era of Julius Caesar.
Soil is the guardian of our history and cultural inheritance. All archeological remains are in or on the ground.
Soil could participate in solving the problem of global warming and the glasshouse effect, if global measures were taken to preserve (“lock”) carbon as organic matter in the soil, instead of releasing it to the atmosphere as CO2. This research is particularly acute in the scientific world today.
Alas, our soils are in danger! Its rapid loss is caused by the expansion of urban areas, deforestation, intensive agriculture, overgrazing, erosion, pollution, etc. As we promised at the beginning, dismal figures will be left out of this text, but we need to be aware that our soils remain degraded and bare, while at the same time our needs and expectations from them grow bigger. And since we need our soils that much, we need to take precautions to protect it.
In response to this global problem, and according to the initiative of its body – Global Soil Partnership GSP, UN declared 2015 the International Year of Soil at their 68th General Assembly. It is marked worldwide by a series of manifestations with the goal of raising awareness of soil significance for our planet, its multiple roles, and the existing challenges for its sustainable use. For the first time soil is marked as the non-renewable natural resource in the policy of soil conservation.