Soil and human security in the 21st century

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Science  08 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6235, 1261071
DOI: 10.1126/science.1261071

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Global soil resources under stress

The future of humanity is intertwined with the future of Earth's soil resources. Soil provides for agriculture, improves water quality, and buffers greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yet human activities, including agricultural soil erosion, are rapidly degrading soil faster than it is naturally replenished. At this rate, human security over the next century will be severely threatened by unsustainable soil management practices. Amundson et al. review recent advances in understanding global soil resources, including how carbon stored in soil responds to anthropogenic warming. Translating this knowledge into practice is the biggest challenge remaining.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1261071

Structured Abstract


Earth’s soil has formed by processes that have maintained a persistent and expansive global soil mantle, one that in turn provided the stage for the evolution of the vast diversity of life on land. The underlying stability of soil systems is controlled by their inherent balance between inputs and losses of nutrients and carbon. Human exploitation of these soil resources, beginning a few thousand years ago, allowed agriculture to become an enormous success. The vastness of the planet and its soil resources allowed agriculture to expand, with growing populations, or to move, when soil resources were depleted. However, the practice of farming greatly accelerated rates of erosion relative to soil production, and soil has been and continues to be lost at rates that are orders of magnitude greater than mechanisms that replenish soil. Additionally, agricultural practices greatly altered natural soil carbon balances and feedbacks. Cultivation thus began an ongoing slow ignition of Earth’s largest surficial reservoir of carbon—one that, when combined with the anthropogenic warming of many biomes, is capable of driving large positive feedbacks that will further increase the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases and exacerbate associated climate change.


The study of soil is now the domain of diverse schools of physical and biological science. Rapid advances in empirical and theoretical understanding of soil processes are occurring. These advances have brought an international, and global, perspective to the study of soil processes and focused the implications of soil stewardship for societal well-being. Major advances in the past decade include our first quantitative understanding of the natural rates of soil production, derived from isotopic methods developed by collaboration of geochemists and geomorphologists. Proliferation of research by soil and ecological scientists in the northern latitudes continues to illuminate and improve estimates of the magnitude of soil carbon storage in these regions and its sensitivity and response to warming. The role of soil processes in global carbon and climate models is entering a period of growing attention and increasing maturity. These activities in turn reveal the severity of soil-related issues at stake for the remainder of this century—the need to rapidly regain a balance to the physical and biological processes that drive and maintain soil properties, and the societal implications that will result if we do not.


Both great challenges and opportunities exist in regards to maintaining soil’s role in food, climate, and human security. Erosion continues to exceed natural rates of soil renewal even in highly developed countries. The recent focus by economists and natural scientists on potential future shortages of phosphorus fertilizer offers opportunities for novel partnerships to develop efficient methods of nutrient recycling and redistribution systems in urban settings. Possibly the most challenging issues will be to better understand the magnitude of global soil carbon feedbacks to climate change and to mitigating climate change in a timely fashion. The net results of human impacts on soil resources this century will be global in scale and will have direct impacts on human security for centuries to come.

Large-scale erosion forming a gully system in the watershed of Lake Bogoria, Kenya.

Accelerated soil erosion here is due to both overgrazing and improper agricultural management, which are partially due to political-social impacts of past colonization and inadequate resources and infrastructure. The erosion additionally affects the long-term future of Lake Bogoria because of rapid sedimentation. This example illustrates the disruption of the natural balance of soil production and erosion over geological time scales by human activity and the rapidity of the consequences of this imbalance.



Human security has and will continue to rely on Earth’s diverse soil resources. Yet we have now exploited the planet’s most productive soils. Soil erosion greatly exceeds rates of production in many agricultural regions. Nitrogen produced by fossil fuel and geological reservoirs of other fertilizers are headed toward possible scarcity, increased cost, and/or geopolitical conflict. Climate change is accelerating the microbial release of greenhouse gases from soil organic matter and will likely play a large role in our near-term climate future. In this Review, we highlight challenges facing Earth’s soil resources in the coming century. The direct and indirect response of soils to past and future human activities will play a major role in human prosperity and survival.

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