The soil crisis: the need to treat as a global health problem and the pivotal role of microbes in prophylaxis and therapy

Timmis, Kenneth; Ramos, Juan Luis

VL / 14 - BP / 769 - EP / 797
Soil provides a multitude of services that are essential to a healthily functioning biosphere and continuity of the human race, such as feeding the growing human population and the sequestration of carbon needed to counteract global warming. Healthy soil availability is the limiting parameter in the provision of a number of these services. As a result of anthropogenic abuses, and natural and global warming-promoted extreme weather events, Planet Earth is currently experiencing an unprecedented crisis of soil deterioration, desertification and erosive loss that increasingly prejudices the services it provides. Such services are pivotal to the Sustainability Development Goals formulated by the United Nations. Immediate and coordinated action on a global scale is urgently required to slow and ultimately reverse the loss of healthy soils. Despite the 'dirt-dust', non-vital appearance of soil, it is a highly dynamic living entity, whose life is overwhelmingly microbial. The soil microbiota, which constitutes the greatest reservoir and donor of microbial diversity on Earth, acts as a vast bioreactor, mediating a myriad of chemical reactions that turn the biogeochemical cycles, recycle wastes, purify water, and underpin the multitude of other services soil provides. Fuelling the belowground microbial bioreactor is the aboveground plant and photosynthetic surface microbial life which captures solar energy, fixes inorganic CO2 to organic carbon, and channels fixed carbon and energy into soil. In order to muster an effective response to the crisis, to avoid further deterioration, and to restore unhealthy soils, we need a new and coherent approach, namely to deal with soils worldwide as patients in need of health care and create (i) a public health system for development of effective policies for land use, conservation, restoration, recommendations of prophylactic measures, monitoring and identification of problems (epidemiology), organizing crisis responses, etc., and (ii) a healthcare system charged with soil care: the promotion of good practices, implementation of prophylaxis measures, and institution of therapies for treatment of unhealthy soils and restoration of drylands. These systems need to be national but there is also a desperate need for international coordination. To enable development of effective, evidence-based strategies that will underpin the efforts of soil healthcare systems, a substantial investment in wide-ranging interdisciplinary research on soil health and disease is mandatory. This must lead to a level of understanding of the soil:biota functionalities underlying key ecosystem services that enables formulation of effective diagnosis-prophylaxis-therapy pathways for sustainable use, protection and restoration of different types of soil resources in different climatic zones. These conservation-regenerative-restorative measures need to be complemented by an educative-political-economic-legislative framework that provides incentives encouraging soil care: knowledge, policy, economic and others, and laws which promote international adherence to the principles of restorative soil management. And: we must all be engaged in improving soil health; everyone has a duty of care (). Creative application of microbes, microbiomes and microbial biotechnology will be central to the successful operation of the healthcare systems.

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Gold, Green published