On shaky ground

Joe Turner asks why, when soil is crucial to our food supply and an essential component of a healthy biosphere, we continue to ignore the skills required to study it

The Biologist 62(2) p8

"A healthy life is not possible without healthy soils," said the United Nations' Ban Ki-moon on launching the International Year of Soil 2015. Its aim is to shine a spotlight on soil. And let's be honest, soil science needs the attention.

Global soils are used, abused and neglected. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around a third of all soils are degraded: badly eroded, affected by salt, overworked, built on and forgotten. This is not good when we will need to increase food production to feed an ever growing population. So how can we manage our soils to cope with this?

In the UK, there has been a consistent gap in technical soil science skills, but little has been done about it. There are few undergraduate degree programmes, only a handful of master's courses and a slowly increasing number of doctorates that involve much soil science. Even if someone were to gain some soil qualifications, it is doubtful they would be able to find a job to pay the bills. Most soil science graduates give up on the idea of a soil-based career and do something else with their lives.

We can't afford this. If we want to manage pollution, we need soil science. If we want to grow more crops without watching all the soil wash away, we need soil science. If we want to preserve rare habitats and woodlands while at the same time getting the most from our land, we need soil science. It is not an optional extra that can be left to advocacy groups. We would not allow the untrained partisan voices to be the only ones heard on construction, architecture or civil engineering, so why is it that the only sector speaking up for soils is organic farming?

For soil science to be elevated from jokes about 'dirt studies', several things have to happen. Organisations such as the Society of Biology, for example, have a role in promoting soil science, to elevate it to the status of plant science, biochemistry, ecology and other biosciences. Government and employers must focus on providing career paths to make studying soil science a viable option. Wages and prospects in the sector need to increase.

As none of these things are currently happening, there is a crisis in soil science. Most of the more experienced members of the British Society of Soil Science are at or near retirement age. There are few graduates with the specific skills to take their place in academia. The erosion of the value of qualifications means that a doctorate is now needed to get a starting job that once only required a degree. There are also fewer jobs in soil science – particularly in government. As the number of job opportunities fall, there is less incentive to study the discipline in the first place.

In a few years, there will be nobody left. Who then will be able to tackle the great and complicated issues around the sustainability of soil, water and food?

Joe Turner is a journalist specialising in soil science and sanitation.