Neus Bonet ESR15

The wonder of soil

Soil is one of the most under-rated and little understood wonders on our fragile planet. Whether we realize it or not, soils provide services that make life possible for humans from serving as the medium in which we grow food to regulating our climate, improving water cycles, and regenerating ecosystems. Far from being lifeless dirt, it is estimated that in a single gram of soil there could be as many as 5 thousand species of microorganisms, and in one teaspoon of soil there are more microorganisms than there are people on the earth. There is an extraordinary life teeming underground!

But much of what lies beneath in this hidden and deep universe is still alien to us. Despite being literally under out feet!

Millions of years of evolutionary competition have led the microorganisms to produce antibiotic compounds to fight their neighbours and these compounds form the basis of many of the antibiotic used by us humans.

One of the most fascinating organisms are earthworms. Earthworms journey down and around creating breathing holes, like lungs in the soil. This creates space for plants roots to grow and keeps soil alive. Isn’t that fascinating?

Under the soil, there are also vast and intricate webs of fungal threads. Plants and fungi need each other to thrive, and so they do a deal. Fungi can’t capture carbon dioxide to grow like plants can, but they are better than plants at mining soils for nutrients, so they trade. Plants give fungi carbon to grow, and fungi give plants nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Plant matter decays and provides food for microbes. They provide food for worms; worms are food for birds and so on… Soil provides us humans with almost everything we eat. And this is just one example of the interconnected ecosystem we are all part of!

Soil is also an important carbon store, capturing carbon and locking it away in stable forms. It stores three times as much carbon as all the plants on Earth combined including trees. But because it grows so slowly, they need to be protected. It takes more than 100 years to build just 5 millimetres, half of a centimetre of soil. But just moments to destroy it. Some soil is ancient, dating back millions and millions of years. The oldest soil on Earth is thought to be in South Africa and dates back three billion years.

However, it’s not merely the services that soils provide us that make them valuable. Soils do not require a purpose to deserve our admiration. They are precious, intricate, interconnected systems of great worth, deserving of respect and awe, regardless of the benefits we derive from them. What if our goal was to inspire people to perceive soils as a natural marvel, a captivating blend of nature and culture? Instead of focusing on a list of soil functions, what if we emphasized the enigmatic and captivating aspects of soils, fostering a sense of exploration and curiosity? The same way we stand in awe of magnificent natural formations, from towering mountains and cascading waterfalls to serene beaches and vast deserts. Couldn’t we encourage this way people around us to notice the beauty of the soil beneath their feet and comprehend its significance? Isn’t wonder the initial catalyst for action? Don’t we need to first love something to care about protecting it?

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