22.04.2024 | Why Earth Day is Soil Day

Let’s celebrate & protect the fertile earth forming the basis for all terrestrial life

By Dr. Hannah Schragmann and Berenice Di Biase, 22.04.2024

Today is Earth Day. And our Earth, as we know it, consists of lavish green landscapes, flourishing life, and to sustain it all, lots and lots of soil. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 4.5 billion year history of our planet, soils are very young – they began forming only 450 million years ago. To understand the importance of soils, let’s travel back in time and imagine how planet Earth looked like before the development of soils: rocky, dusty, and inhospitable to life. Sounds like Mars, right?  

As plants evolved to live on land, soils began developing, and alongside them the fungi, nematodes, and mites, together forming the basis of our food webs. In just 20 million years our entire ecosystem was transformed, the formation of meter deep soils allowed the development of forests, which progressed to currently host globally 80% of amphibian species, 75% of bird species, and 68% of mammalian species.  

The process of soil formation highlights the interconnected and cyclical nature of all life. When the living phase of plants and animals comes to an end, a new phase begins as their remains are returned to the soil. Bacteria and fungi break down the matter returned to the soil into smaller, reusable components, which can be consumed by the soil biome and growing plants. The microbially powered process of decomposition is vital because it leads to soil organic matter and hummus formation, while allowing nutrients to support new forms of life. This also means that soil is a vital non-renewable resource: It takes at least 500 years to regenerate 1cm of topsoil.  

Why soil health matters 

The soil is the fertile layer surrounding our planet, it is the skin of our Earth – and a living, very complex substance. And just like our skin protects us, breathes for us, like we could not live without it, we could not live without healthy soils. Paul Valéry once said: Skin is the deepest in man. And just the same applies to soil: Soil is the deepest on earth. There is a reason our planet is called Earth. So on Earth Day, let’s celebrate earth, let’s celebrate soil! Because the soil does not only host a large amount of life – it forms the basis for all terrestrial life.   

Let’s start with the first point: Our soils are a true biodiversity hotspot, with 25% of global diversity hosted by soils. In just one cup of this “dirt”, researchers have counted up to 100 million organisms, from more than 5,000 species, highlighting the vivid life below ground. But this life is not just worth protecting for its richness and beauty – our living soil provides vital ecosystem functions: 

  • Nutrient mineralization: Microbes transform nutrients into bioavailable forms for plant uptake  
  • Bioremediation: Microbial activity can detoxify from heavy metals, preventing contamination of water sources  
  • Basis of ground food chain: Small invertebrates feed on soil microbes, and are in turn consumed by birds etc.  
  • Building up soil organic carbon: Carbon has to process through the microbiome to build up soil organic carbon stocks  

Healthy soils are characterized by their ability to provide these vital ecosystem functions – and were built up via a long biochemical process. Soils are the largest carbon storage on land, and directly or indirectly provide 95% of our food.  To preserve life on Earth as we know it, including our own, soils must be protected. 

Deteriorating soil health calls for urgent attention 

Everything starts in the soil. Everything ends in the soil. But our soils, the skin of our Earth and the basis for all above ground ecosystems, are being depleted around the globe: Currently, more than 40% of global soils are degraded. The main reason for that is land use change and damaging land management practices, particularly in relation to agriculture. 

Luckily, society is starting to recognize that we need to change our way of approaching soil, that in the interest of food security and climate regulation, we must actively promote, restore, and enhance soil health. The soil microbiome offers us a window of untapped potential to understand our soils. Coming from precision medicine and biochemistry, we at Soilytix are convinced that understanding and deconvoluting the complex biological layer of soil is key to the successful implementation of solutions to restore, enhance, and promote soil health.  

Our soils are not dirt, and they are not just a layer one can assess from space via satellite imagery – as often done currently (please read our next blog post for a deep dive on this). Our soils live – and we need to get to know them.  

From Soil with kindness, 

Your Soilytix Team 

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