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The FFC Bulletin 2016 V3 – Two important soil publications

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By Charles Merfield

The last month has seen the publication of two highly contrasting, but equally important, soil publications. The first is “Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management” from the FAO and the second is “Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas” from the European Commission.

Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas

The term Atlas, I think undersells this book, encyclopaedic does greater justice to what I have to describe as a work of exceptional beauty. Twenty four of the worlds top scientific soil institutions have come together as the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative to produce this remarkable work, covering everything from the fundamentals of soils, the diversity of soil life, its global distribution, through to ecosystem functions and up into the threats, solutions and politics of soil. Every one of its 180 pages has stunning images and diagrams of and about soil life and is brimming with information. It is very much targeted at a general audience, not soil scientists. Young children will be enthralled by the photos and I can easily see this being the kind of book that fires up the fascination of older kids for soil and will be genesis of many a future soil scientist. Even more remarkably it is free as a PDF, typically such a book would be $100s. Hardcopies are available for purchase, but, I you can also download and print it – though it needs to be in colour and A3 (not A4) to do the photos justice and make the text and photos a decent size.

Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management (download)

In complete contrast, the guidelines from the FAO is very short (especially for an FAO publication!) at just 13 pages and has no photos, but, the value in its brevity is that it summarises the scientific evidence for what damages soils and what to do to protect them, i.e., the totality of human knowledge on the topic. It is also part of the global political realisation of the “incalculable value soils provide to society” and as such it is a product of the 2015 International Year of Soils, and the Global Soil Partnership.

What it is not therefore is a handbook, but, in listing the key things farmers and growers need to be doing to look after their soil, it informs them if they are on track or not. And if a broad technique is not listed, the implication is that the science does not support. it. There is an statement that more detailed information is to follow, thought there are already many good resources out there on soil management including very substantial textbooks.

For agriculture, the key management issues are:

  • Minimising soil erosion;
  • Having good soil structure (minimising compaction);
  • The soil surface is protected by vegetation, residues and living plants, as much as possible;
  • Good to optimum soil organic matter levels;
  • Nutrient applications are matched to plant requirements, i.e., neither over or under;
  • Soil salinisation, sodification and alkalinisation are minimal;
  • Soils can effectively absorb and store precipitation for plant use;
  • Contaminants are kept below toxic levels;
  • Inputs, such as agrichemicals, are optimised.

None of which can be described as radical or novel – indeed they are well worn messages for those working in sustainable agriculture and soil management. It is, however, valuable to have such clear statements from the FAO and therefore despite its brevity it is as important a publication as the atlas.

Download the guidelines

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