Healthy soils for a healthy planet

Healthy soils are vital in a world challenged by climate change. We need to decide how best to use land to provide food for a growing population and how it can be used to mitigate the effects of manmade emissions. The quality of soil must be maintained or restored if it is to provide its essential services: cycling nutrients, water and air, supporting biodiversity and acting as a substantial store for carbon. This thematic issue outlines key research in these areas.

About 70 billion tonnes of organic carbon are stored in Europe's soils alone. A changing climate could see the release of carbon from some soils. The article 'Alpine soils may release carbon following climate change' suggests that carbon, bound in soil for 17,000 years, could be released under rising temperatures.

Land use has a major impact on soils. This in turn affects soil's contribution to combating climate change. Ongoing research into future land use change is explored in 'The effects of future land use change on EU soil carbon stocks'.

Europe's population is increasingly living in towns and cities, which is having a profound impact on soils. The right information about soils will help planners develop more sustainable cities. 'Urban soil: how can we preserve its carbon and nitrogen sink?' reviews our current state of understanding of urbanisation and soil health.

Improved management of agricultural land can increase soil's carbon sink, while boosting productivity. Farmers who practice crop rotations with cycles of returning the land to pasture do not experience a drop in profits, according to 'Soil management: changes to crop rotations reduce carbon emissions'.

Farmers are entrusted with conserving farmland biodiversity through sustainable practices. For example, more conservative farming techniques, such as shallow ploughing, can enhance earthworm populations and improve soil functioning. See: 'Deep ploughing reduces diversity and number of earthworms'. Similarly, farmers who maintain grassy margins at the edges of fields provide important habitats for soil dwelling creatures. See: 'Grassy margins enhance soil biodiversity'.

The research highlighted in this issue represents only a fraction of efforts to protect our planet's soils. Soil is a vital, non-renewable resource providing essential support to human life, society and ecosystem services. We must continuously monitor soil quality in order to detect changes early on.

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