Introducing soil security and its conservation and protection

Why is this resource important (or rather vital) for life on Earth?

Think... can we imagine a world without soils?

Why do you think we call our planet ‘Earth’? 

If you’re thinking ‘what on Earth are they on about?’ keep reading. Fun facts and nitty-gritty details await ...

Without the earth underneath our feet life, as we know it, wouldn’t exist! You may even have heard of our world being referred to as ‘Mother Earth’ – that’s because soil (aka earth) provides us with so many benefts and supports virtually all land-based plant and animal life directly or indirectly.

We live, all our lives, less than 25 centimetres away from extinction. For that is the average thickness of the thin dusting of topsoil that is all that stands between us and a barren planet, and on which we utterly depend. And yet we abuse it recklessly.

Soil is a complex, multi-component system of interacting materials, and the properties of soil result from the net effect of all these interactions.

It is the most important natural resource after water. 

Soil forms a very thin interface (usually < 2 m) between the continental crust (geosphere) made of rocks or deposited sediments (thickness up to 80 kilometres) and atmosphere (thickness ~35 kilometres), biosphere and hydrosphere. These spheres interact to support all life on the Earth. Together  they control water, carbon, nitrogen, other element cycles and gas exchanges. Soils act as a temporary  reservoir of several  resources. 

“We know more about soil than ever before, yet perhaps a smaller percentage of people than at any point in human history would understand the truth of this statement”. - FAO and ITPS. 2015. Status of the World’s Soil Resources (SWSR) – Main Report.

“Soils are a prime basis of  life for people, animals, plants and macro- and microorganisms” (FAO-ITPS, 2015)

Nearly all of the food and fibres used by humans are produced on soil. Soil is also essential for water and ecosystem health. It is second only to the oceans as a global carbon sink, with an important role in the potential slowing of, and adaptation to, climate change.  

International efforts to protect soils were reaffirmed in 2012 in the outcome of the Conference for Sustainable Development (UNCSD) held in Rio De Janiero where delegates affirmed, amongst other, that:

"...we recognize the economic and social significance of good land management, including soil, particularly its contribution to economic growth, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and food security, eradicating poverty, the empowerment of women, addressing climate change and improving water availability." 

Perceptions about soils

Different people have different concepts of soil as this environment medium has many  uses  and,  hence,  it  is  viewed  in  different  perspectives. For  example,  children view  soil  as  something  they  can  play  with;  soil  is  home  for  many  organisms  such  as earthworms,  termites  and  microbes.  It  provides  raw  materials  (peat  fuel,  clay  minerals  for industry). 

Artists use it to make beautiful sculptures and other objects while engineers use it for construction  (e.g.  bricks,  and  as  a  platform  to  build  on). We  use  soil  to  dispose  or  bury  our waste. Perhaps,  the most  important use of soil  is produce  food,  fibre and  fuel  for our growing population.  

The fragile Maltese soil system

Undoubtedly, soil resources of the Maltese Islands are an important and limited natural resource of great environmental value due to archipelago small geographic coverage. Their sustained quality is actually of great benefit not only to the local farming and livestock community but also to wider society interests. Maltese society stands to benefit from retention of this resource as natural landscape integrity is secured through the continued presence of this resource. Soils also sustain our fragile (and mostly endemic)  ecosystems. 

Furthermore, a number of activity components associated with a country's economic growth (e.g. rural tourism, upmarket accommodation) draw their continued strength through their indirect association with, and sustained presence of, this vital resource. 

In common with other countries of the Mediterranean region, intensive land use, extensive urbanisation and increasing rural development within the country - resulting in widespread mismanagement of this natural resource - have, over the years, intensified threats of environmental degradation and accentuated pressures over the long-term sustainability associated with this basic component shaping the Maltese natural environment. Various objectives of soil protection dealing with predictions for safeguarding soil status, stabilisation and (where applicable) remediation require detailed, updatable knowledge about soils, their potential and actual loading.

In the absence of a national institution - responsible for continuous soil survey and sampling data activities, procedural setups and monitoring - soil information has until recently received little cross-cutting (horizontal) coordination. Thus, it remains a relatively undeveloped theme within the wider public administration domain which addresses environmental protection.

What are soils?

Soils, and the wider component of pedodiversity, can be explained in several ways.

The following is a working definition as adopted by Commission 1.1 of the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS):

“Soil is a continuous three-dimensional natural body that has spatial and temporal dimensions (soil cover or pedosphere). Primary organic and inorganic constituents are organized into secondary polyhedral structural units that in turn are assembled into vertical and lateral horizons that comprise soils unique to the environment in which they are formed.“

UN-FAO’s 2015 Status of Global Soil Resources Report describes this natural resource in the following manner: “Defined in its most simplest form, soil is the upper layer of the Earth’s crust transformed by weathering and physical/chemical and biological processes. It is composed of mineral particles, organic matter, water, air and living organisms organized in genetic soil horizons”.

The USDA Soil Taxonomy definition for soil is:
“...The collection of natural bodies on the earth's surface, in places modified or even made by man of earthly materials, containing living matter and supporting or capable of supporting plants out-of-doors. Its upper limit is air or shallow water. At its margins it grades to deep water or to barren areas of rock or ice. Its lower limit to the not-soil beneath is perhaps the most difficult to define. Soil includes the horizons near the surface that differ from the underlying rock material as a result of interactions, through time, of climate, living organisms, parent materials, and relief. In the few places where it contains thin cemented horizons that are impermeable to roots, animals, or marks of other biologic activity. The lower limit of soil, therefore, is normally the lower limit of biologic activity, which generally coincides with the common rooting depth of native perennial plants...”. (Soil Survey Staff, 1975, p. 1).

An agricultural definition of soil is "a dynamic natural body on the surface of the earth in which plants grow, composed of mineral and organic materials and living forms" (Brady, 1974, p. 617).

An engineering definition of soil is "all the fragmented mineral material at or near the surface of the earth, the moon, or other planetary body, plus the air, water, organic matter, and other substances which may be included therein" (Spangler and Handy, 1982, p. 67). This is the same definition for regolith.

Geological definitions of soil depend on the interest of the geologist. 'Hard rock' geologists tend to view soil as regolith, employing the engineering definition. Geomorphologists, however, are interested in soil forming processes and adopt definitions and classification systems developed primarily for agriculturists. While geology allows anyone to collect pretty rocks and to talk about a spectacular subject such as mountains, it seems that soil science is perceived as much less ‘sexy’.