Soil inhabitants hold together the planet’s food system

1new_collage_soil biodiversity

At the launch of the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, experts shone a spotlight on the astonishing biodiversity in the soil, which supports food production, clean water, human health, and environmental sustainability.

The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas— the outstanding reward of a 3-year global collaboration—was launched on 25 May 2016 in Nairobi. The launch, part of a symposium of the Second United Nations Environment Assembly, provided an opportunity for eminent speakers in the field to discuss the central role soil biodiversity plays in food security, environmental health, and the global sustainable development agenda.

Edmundo Barrios, the event’s lead organizer, is Senior Soil Ecosystem Scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), and one of the editors of the Atlas.

Edmundo Barrios, Senior Soil Ecosystem Scientist, World Agroforestry Centre

Edmundo Barrios, Senior Soil Ecosystem Scientist, World Agroforestry Centre

“Biodiversity is largely understood by society as that which lives above the ground and easily observed like trees, crops and birds.  Much less is known about belowground biodiversity. In fact, the smaller the organism, the less we know about it,” said Barrios. By ignoring soil biodiversity, we might be missing the real picture of global biodiversity.” For instance, whereas around 88% of tree species and around half of all ant species have been described, less than 1.5% of microscopic soil bacteria are known to science, he explained.

But the situation is changing fast, thanks to new molecular technologies and powerful visualization tools which have been developed during the last decade, tools that allow a glimpse into a fascinating world beneath our feet.

“No longer is soil biodiversity a black box- we are cracking into that and moving fast about it,” said keynote speaker Diana Wall, Science Chair of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) and Professor at Colorado State University.

Dr. Diana Wall, Scientific Chair, Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative

In her presentation titled  ‘Our Common Ground: Soil biodiversity and sustainability,’ Wall, who has studied soil-dwelling organisms for over 20 years, showed how soils are at the centre of the global agendas related to food security, health, biodiversity, climate change, and desertification. This is because “Soil habitats are dynamic living interfaces, and key regulators of ecosystem processes.”

“Sustainability goals are challenging. Yet every one of them—food, poverty, water, air, health—involve soil; the living soil,” said Wall

“But widespread land degradation as a result of poor management of natural and managed ecosystems has led to soil biodiversity declining across much of the world,” she added.

Jeff Herrick, soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), spoke about land degradation. He recalled the US Dust Bowl of

Jeff Herrick, soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS)

Jeff Herrick, soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS),

the 1930s, and the crash in quinoa production in the South American Altiplano in the 1990s, both of which resulted from “a mismatch between land use and long term land potential to sustain agriculture.”

“Although our understanding of the relationship between specific soil organisms, sustainable production and human health is imperfect, the overall impact of soil biodiversity, as part of a sustainable management system, is clearly positive.” Herrick added that given its holistic approach, the CGIAR was well placed to address the issues of soil biodiversity globally, in the context of agriculture.

“Key to saving our soils will be connecting people with knowledge through technology, so they can better match land use with land potential and apply the best available management for their particular locality,” he explained. He noted that the basic principles of soil management on farms are simple, and include:

  • Maintaining soil cover
  • Minimizing soil disturbance and
  • Minimizing pesticide use.

The USDA’s Land-Potential Knowledge System is one tool aimed at helping land managers become better stewards of the land.

The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas was sponsored and supported by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (EC-JRC).

Dr. Arwyn Jones

Dr. Arwyn Jones

Arwyn Jones of the EC-JRC said the Atlas took the sustained commitment of its editors, and the voluntary efforts of over 100 subject-matter experts. The eight chapters of the Atlas are scientifically sound yet easy to read, with comprehensive illustrations, and fantastic images.

“The new publication will help bring the ‘Wow Factor’ into the soil sciences, and raise awareness among all people— from farmers to business owners— about the value of soil,” said Jones.

“And shaping public opinion in favour of soil care can strongly influence policy-making.”

Neville Ash,  former UNEP Deputy Director, called the Atlas “A tremendous achievement,” and “A threshold of change in our ability to communicate soil biodiversity in the world at large.”

“Soils underpin the SDG ambitions,” said Ash.

Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, offered her organization’s congratulations on the launch of the Atlas.

She said the IPBES and partners are conducting a global Land Degradation and Land Restoration assessment, to be released in 2019, which has soil biodiversity components.

The Chief Guest at the launch was John Lynam, Board Chair of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He offered a historical perspective of soil biodiversity research in tropical countries, tracking it back to the Tropical Soil Biology Fertility (TSBF) Collaborative Programme which started in the mid-80s with UNESCO funding, and then was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation between

Dr. John Lynam, Chair of the Board of the World Agroforestry Centre unveils the Atlas

Dr. John Lynam, Chair of the Board of the World Agroforestry Centre unveils the Atlas

the late 1980s to the 2000s. Lynam was then the Associate Director for East and Southern Africa at the Foundation, and was a staunch supporter of the research and an advocate for soil health as a route to food security.

“TSBF provided the scientific framework for understanding soil biology and its relation to soil fertility in the tropics. When the role of microbial biomass as an indicator of soil fertility became clear, this offered alternatives for managing soil fertility for better agricultural production in Africa” he said.

“But the real task is to translate our understanding of soil biology to better land management.”

Lynam emphasised that perennials, in particular trees, are an important component of improving both above-ground and below-ground biodiversity.

“I would encourage putting soil biodiversity at the core of the global food security agenda,” said Lynam before opening the envelope with the Atlas of Soil Biodiversity and raising the book shoulder-high.

This marked the official launch of the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas.


Download your free copy or purchase the printed edition of the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas


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


Other launches are planned in Australia, US, Brazil, and Europe.

Visit: Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas | Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative



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

The rooted pedon in a dynamic multifunctional landscape: Soil science at the World Agroforestry Centre. By Meine van Noordwijk, Edmundo Barrios, Keith Shepherd, Jules Bayala

and Ingrid Öborn (2015)

“Unlocking the Sustainable Potential of Land Resources: Evaluation Systems, Strategies and Tools” by  International Resource Panel – UNEP'

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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