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Advances in soil carbon could be the key to improving food security and water quality

The recommendations have been released on World Soil Day (5 December 2014) 

An international consortium of scientists have identified advances in improving soil carbon management which could be the key to addressing serious global challenges affecting millions of people.

The Global Advances in Soil Carbon Management recommendations, which have been compiled by a team of international scientists, could have a significant impact on land degradation, food security, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions from land.

The recommendations and a vast background of compiled scientific evidence have been drawn from a two-year international Rapid Assessment Process (RAP) project Benefits of Soil Carbon. The RAP was organised through the Scientific Committee for Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

The project recruited the wide range of experts, including Rothamsted Research scientists, in order to draw together the fragmented and complex science and policy information on soil carbon and its essential role supporting land ecosystems and human life. 

The recommendations, which aim to protect and improve soil carbon levels in soils around the world, have been released on World Soil Day (5 December 2014) – a UN international awareness day which strives to connect people with soils and demonstrate their critical importance in our lives. 

Professor Steve Banwart, project co-chair who is from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, said: “Soil carbon in the form of organic matter is a huge asset worldwide. Its vital role to support food production and environmental quality is taken for granted.

“There have been significant declines in soil carbon just in the past few decades due to intensive land use.  Protecting and improving soil carbon levels in soils around the world is essential for sustained economic development and environmental protection.”

The key recommendations highlighted by the 75-strong project team from 17 countries world-wide include:

  • Stopping soil carbon losses from organic-rich soils such as peatlands and from drylands where soils are vulnerable due to low soil carbon content
  • Promoting soil carbon gains through active soil management in agricultural lands that have experienced historical losses of soil carbon,
  •  Greatly expanding soil and land management from local scale decisions to increased national and international actions to deliver large-scale benefits worldwide.
  •  Reducing the fragmentation in policy for soil and land management, which is often scattered between government sectors for agriculture, environment, energy and water resources.
  • A global research effort to increase soils carbon content, quantify the soil improvements and to adapt improved soil carbon management to land and climate conditions around the world.

Project co-chairman Professor Elke Noellemeyer, from the National University of La Pampa, Argentina, said: “Conventional agriculture often harms soil carbon levels but there are many practical ways that are used to improve soil carbon in farmland.  These practical steps need to be expanded and adapted to local conditions worldwide.”

Professor Steve McGrath, Head of the Department of Sustainable Soils and Grassland Systems at Rothamsted Research, said: “It is tremendous to see this international study published on World Soils Day, as it emphasises that we have only just woken up to the importance of soil, and particularly soil carbon, and that managing it is vital to fulfil the demand for food, fibre and clean water by the increasing world population. Soils and soil carbon also have a crucial influence on the world climate through the production or destruction of a number of greenhouse gases, so there are other very direct effects of not managing soils appropriately, which increasingly affect us all, rich or poor.”

Professor Jerry Melillo, leader of the USA Global Change Research Programme’s 2014 report on climate change and a past-president of SCOPE, added “These recommendations are a thoughtful and positive statement that offers practical actions that can be taken to tackle these major global change challenges.  Managing soil effectively is one of the most important tasks facing society in this century”.

The full recommendations and supporting scientific evidence for policy and practice innovation in soil carbon managements are released as an authoritative volume SCOPE, Volume 71), published by CAB International.

SCOPE 71 considers a range of topics related to soil carbon.  This information-rich assessment includes a plain language discussion of the many free services that soil carbon provides for society, as well as a clearly thought through set of options available for managing soil carbon for the benefit of future generations.  SCOPE 71 is a valuable resource for policy makers and land managers who are working to build a more sustainable planet.

For the past 45 years the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), has been working across scientific, cultural and political boundaries, and has produced a series of high profile, policy-relevant scientific assessments on global environmental issues. 

These assessments have helped to bridge the gap between fundamental research and the application of scientific knowledge in management and policy practices.  This newest volume in the assessment series, SCOPE 71, focuses on soil carbon, a critical component of the biosphere’s natural capital that is now under increasing pressure from a growing human population, projected to reach more than ten billion people by the end of the 21st century.  


Notes to Editors

About The University of Sheffield

With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities. A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in. In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

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