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Soil is an often overlooked and undervalued resource – but we ignore it at our peril, a leading scientist has warned. Soil degradation ‘poses threat to human life’

Field erosion damage on soil and rapeseed plants on a food farm agriculture

Soil is an often overlooked and undervalued resource – but we ignore it at our peril, a leading scientist has warned.

Regenerative agriculture could help stem current loss rates which mean some soils may disappear completely by 2050, said Jane Rickson, professor of soil erosion and conservation at Cranfield University’s Soil and Agrifood Institute. 

The annual economic cost of soil degradation exceeds £1.5bn in England and Wales alone, Prof Rickson told Society of Chemical Industry’s 2021 Andrew Medal Memorial Lecture. She received the award for her work in the area of neglected science.

Greater impact

An estimated 12m hectares of agricultural land worldwide are lost to soil degradation every year, said Prof Rickson. Climate change means rainfall is more frequent, more extreme and of longer duration, with a greater impact on soil erosion.

Prof Rickson was this year named as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering. In her Andrew Medal Lecture, she explained that soil health directly related to sustainable development goals – including zero hunger, clean water and sanitation.

“The word ‘soil’ has long had negative cultural connotations,” she said.

“We talk of ‘muddying the waters’ and in the USA, soil is known as ‘dirt’ – yet this is far from the reality.  This brown, muddy material is actually a very dynamic and functional part of natural capital that underpins a lot of the things we take for granted.

“We must begin to value soil as a finite resource essential to human survival.  Soil delivers diverse benefits to society as a whole and has direct links to individuals’ well-being and national economic status.

Healthy soils

Around 97% of food relies on soil. As well as the production of food, fibre, fodder and biofuel, soils regulate our water supplies and mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and storage.

“We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops in taking out atmospheric carbon dioxide. Soils also provide habitats for biodiversity and make important contributions to our cultural life.

“Most countries throughout the world have agreed that to make the world a better place, we should be working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  I would argue that soil is related to most, if not all of, those goals.”

The Andrew Medal is awarded in memory of ICI chemical engineer Sydney Andrew, a long time SCI member who exemplified the society’s mission to encourage the application of chemistry and related sciences for public benefit.

Scant attention

Dr Andrew died in 2011. The Andrew Medal Lecture is presented every third year on the theme of neglected science – areas which receive scant attention despite being important in agriculture and the chemical industry,. 

SCI chief executive Sharon Todd said the institute was proud to recognise Prof Rickson for her outstanding work – including research, consultancy and teaching in soil and water engineering, soil degradation and sustainable land management.

Ms Todd said: “Her work has focused on better understanding of soil functions and their role in delivering ecosystems goods and services, including agricultural production, water regulation and carbon storage.

“She is also an excellent role model for the next generation of women in science. I am pleased Prof Rickson was also able to describe some solutions to the problems discussed – such as regenerative agriculture.”

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