The A to Z of soil biodiversity

The soil is the “living, breathing skin of our planet.” It is the basis of food production and essential for clean water, health, greenhouse gas capture and numerous other functions that support life on earth.

Soil biodiversity is intimately connected with all terrestrial life. Thanks to advances in technology and global scientific cooperation, huge strides have been made in our understanding of the dazzling diversity of life forms beneath our feet; and especially that of microscopic bacteria, fungi, and nematodes that are invisible to the naked eye.

Soil biodiversity suports all life on earth. Photos courtesy of Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas

Soil biodiversity suports all life on earth. Photos courtesy of Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas

With this knowledge comes the realization of the critical importance of protecting soils everywhere from misuse and mismanagement, be it in cities, forests, deserts, grasslands and farmlands.

This brief A-Z guide provides a snapshot of the links between soils and life on earth, and how ecological land management—through practices such as maintaining ground cover, including trees in farming landscapes (agroforestry), minimizing soil disturbance, and limiting pesticide use—can contribute to soil biodiversity.

The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, launched on 25 May 2016 at the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA2), is the first-ever global, comprehensive treatise on all the aspects of soil biodiversity.

It contains this and much more fascinating knowledge about soil biodiversity and its importance for a sustainable planet.


A to Z of soil biodiversity

Ants Ants have been around for over 120 million years. They are social insects, and among the most abundant soil dwellers; around 14,000 ant species are known.
Biodiversity Soils host a huge proportion of our planet’s biodiversity, with billions of microscopic and visible organisms. Soil biodiversity is increasingly under threat globally.
Carbon Soils are one of the largest stores of carbon, and contribute effectively to the mitigation of climate change. Peatlands are the most efficient carbon sink on the planet, holding an estimated 500 billion metric tons of carbon.
Degradation An estimated 33% of the world’s soils are degraded through processes like erosion, contamination and landslides. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that land degradation costs the world US$40 billion each year.
Ecosystem services

Soils contribute to all four dimensions of ecosystem services:

  1. Provision of goods (e.g. food, fiber, fuel, fresh water),
  2. Support to life on the planet (e.g. soil formation, nutrient cycling, flood control, pollination),
  3. Regulation of ecosystem processes (e.g. climate regulation, disease control, detoxification), and
  4. Cultural services (e.g. recreation, aesthetic and cultural uses).
Food 95% of food is produced on our soils. Healthy living soil supports the production of safe, healthy and nutritious food. Crop pollinators like bumble bees spend part of their life cycle in the soil.
Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas Published in 2016, the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas presents the first overview of soil biodiversity on a global scale. The Atlas is a collaborative effort of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, with contributions from 100 experts from 29 countries.
Health “We can’t breathe, eat, drink, or be healthy without sustainably managing soils,” says a recent editorial in Science magazine.
Immediate Action is needed immediately to protect global soils from further erosion and degradation.
Joint Research Centre (JRC) The JRC of the EU hosts the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC), the thematic centre for soil related data in Europe.
Kenya The second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) is being held at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas is being launched at a UNEA2 symposium on 25 May 2016.
LDSF Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF). This portal can be used for assessing processes of land degradation and the effectiveness of rehabilitation measures over time.
Micro-, meso- and macroflora and fauna Based on their size, ‘microflora’ (e.g. bacteria, fungi), ‘microfauna’ (e.g. protozoa, nematodes), ‘mesofauna’ (e.g. collembola, acari) and ‘macrofauna’ (e.g. earthworms, termites) are the major classifications of soil flora and fauna.
Nitrogen Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil capture atmospheric nitrogen, and increase soil nitrogen availability to crops and other plants.
Organisms The living creatures in the soil that work together to carry out vital tasks that support life on Earth.

The most common types of soil pollutants

are oil, pesticides, heavy metals salts, fertilisers and municipal waste.

Quality The quality of a soil and its productivity is closely linked to its biodiversity.
Roots The roots of plants, especially long-lived plants like trees, provide stability to soil against erosion, and their area of influence (rhizosphere) a home to many important organisms.
Sustainable Sustainable land management is needed to preserve and protect soil from erosion and degradation. It can take up to 1000 years to form 1 cm of soil from parent rock.
Termites Along with earthworms, termites are often called ‘soil ecosystem engineers’ because their feeding, burrowing and nest-building activities transform the soil structure, which generates significant impacts on nutrient cycling, and soil water dynamics and carbon storage.
UN The UN Convention to Combat Desertification, UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are all concerned with stemming the misuse and mismanagement of soils globally.
Volatiles Volatile organic compounds, greenhouse gases, dust, and biota are among the air pollutants released from disturbed soils.
Water The water we drink depends on maintaining healthy soils that store, filter, and cleanse it.
X-rays X-ray technology is being used as a rapid screening tool to reveal the makeup of Africa soils, through the Africa Soil information Service (AfSIS) program involving World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and partners.
Year The United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. 2017 is set to be the International Year of Soil Biodiversity
Zoonosis Zoonoses, human diseases originally transmitted from animals, are on the increase. Ecosystem biodiversity may have benefits to human health through protecting against or reducing disease, through a ‘dilution effect’. Conversely, empirical evidence shows that biodiversity loss often increases disease transmission.

Visit: Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas | Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative

Launch event description with links: Green Room Event 12 : Global Soil Biodiversity: A point of convergence for sustainability |


Balvanera et al 2016_Chapter 4_Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services.pdf

Barrios ECOLEC 2007 Soil biota, ecosystem services and land productivity.pdf

Give soils their due – Editorial by Diana H. Wall and Johan Six. Science Magazine

The Land-Potential Knowledge System (LandPKS): mobile apps and collaboration for optimizing climate change investments. By Jeffrey E. Herrick et al.

Comic book: Living in the soil'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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