Unlocking the Secrets of Soil: 5 Eye-Opening Discoveries from the World Living Soils Forum

In June 2022, scientists, researchers, policy makers and journalists came together at the World Living Soils Forum in Arles-en-Provence, with the goal of learning more about soil.

The city of Arles-en-Provence, credited with inspiring the work of Vincent Van Gogh, was a spectacular backdrop to what proved to be a dynamic, thought-provoking and very troubling two days. Troubling because the incredible brains trust who were present agreed that while soil is critical to life on earth, we simply don’t know enough about it — which means it’s being abused in ways whose consequences we don’t really understand.

But there was good news and optimism to be found as well at the forum, organized and sponsored by Moët Hennessy.

Here are the top five things we learned:

1. There is more under our feet than we know about

The ground we walk on teems with life — an ecosystem rich enough to rival the oceans or the forests.

“What we see above ground is not nearly the diversity we have underneath the ground,” said Diana Wall, Director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University.

Given that scientists are coming to understand that soils store carbon, regulate temperature and host an entire biodiverse kingdom, it’s vitally important to know as much about it as possible. Unfortunately, researchers are at the stage of not knowing what they don’t know. “We are only starting our exploration,” she said.

Worse, much of the existing knowledge is wrong. Take the humble nematode, long vilified as the enemy of the farmer. “Nematodes are king,” said Wall “They’re around every soil — even soils in Antarctica. And they are not only food for other animals in the soil, but we don’t realise how many insects above ground, and how many other animals depend on them as a source of nutrition.”

This lack of knowledge has led to very worrying outcomes.

Nematodes are king. They’re around every soil — even soils in Antarctica. And they are not only food for other animals in the soil, but we don’t realise how many insects above ground, and how many other animals depend on them as a source of nutrition.

Prof. Diana Wall

2. Soils are heavily polluted

According to Natalia Rodriguez Eugenio at the Global Soil Partnership of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), soils are so polluted that “there is no pristine area any more”.

It’s impossible to know where all the contaminants originated, because they can be spread by air and water. “For 100 years we have been releasing contaminants into the environment, and they move from one place to another,” she said, adding that scientists have even found contaminants in the Arctic.

Worse, there are so many pollutants, both known and emerging, that it’s difficult even to classify them. “There are no standards for all the contaminants,” said Rodriguez Eugenio. “The problem is that we now have many emerging contaminants: many pharmaceuticals, microplastics, new contaminants or emerging contaminants.”

Natalia Rodriguez Eugenio discusses soil depollution with Felicity Carter, Johan de Fraye and Ludovic Vincent at the World Living Soil Forum, June 2022

These contaminants can combine with each other to produce even more noxious and dangerous compounds. And there is no easy way to remove many contaminants from soil, not least because so many are in “locked” soils underneath buildings and cities.

But remediation is possible. “Initially it was though that, in particular with organic pollutants, that they’re forever chemicals,” said Johan de Fraye, head of Environmental Affairs at Signify. “But nature actually finds a way and you can stimulate it to find a way. The most optimistic method that we have right now is that indirect, natural methods, can actually clean up.”

De Fraye gave the example of the greasing agent trichloroethylene, which was used for a century to de-grease metals before being banned. When it reaches the soil it’s so heavy that it sinks to layers so deep, that it’s impossible to treat. “Initially the thinking was, you can’t do anything with it. It’s there forever.”

But bacteria have been introduced that degrade the chemical. Ludovic Vincent, founder of BIOMEDE, says other organisms can also regenerate soil, from bacteria to fungi to plants that will uptake heavy metals through their roots. “Nature can recycle and find pathways,” he said, but “we need a kind of global rationale, so as not to constantly run after problems.”

3. Information needs to be shared better

While solutions to soil pollution are emerging, much of the best research has been done by corporations with an interest in the land, whether they’re producers themselves or work with farmers and other land-based suppliers. But because the work has been done for commercial purposes, corporations are often unwilling to share their knowledge.

John Furlow, Director at International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Columbia University, said it’s important for companies and corporations to work more openly with universities, and to focus at the beginning of the project on how information will be shared and dispersed. “There are not a lot of people who enjoy reading academic journals, so it’s not like universities are plugging into the public mindset,” he said. “Whereas corporations are quite good at getting information out and persuading people.”

Together, collaborations between industry and academia offer great opportunities for developing better efficiency, more sustainability and more regenerative practices — if they’re willing to share the knowledge.

4. It’s critical to get young people involved — but it will be expensive

Farmers, says Audrey Bourolleau, are the only entrepreneurs we all need three times a day.

Bourolleau is the co-founder of HECTAR, an agricultural campus outside Paris. Her own entrepreneurial CV is a formidable one: among many high-level positions, she’s also advised Emmanuel Macron on agriculture.

She believes that France — and other countries — must find the next generation of farmers and help them develop and finance new soil preservation practices.

“As for France, we are in a critical situation because 160,000 farms will be taken over within three years,” she says. “We have to introduce newcomers. Most of them are highly educated. They are aware of the soil.” But what they don’t have is the financial ability to fund the many new business enterprises that are now needed, from agro-tourism to green energy.

An even greater challenge is attracting people to the land in the first place. “The children of farmers do not want to be farmers,” said Ronald Vargas, the Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, Land and Water Office of FAO. “They want a better life and that’s why, in many cases, they’re migrating to the cities.”

To keep young people on farms, or attract new ones, the economics of agriculture will have to change, because farmers are not earning enough to be able to change the way they farm. “That’s why we need to think about how we can transform this,” Vargas went on.

5. Soils are vital in the fight against global warming

Greenhouse emissions are still rising, but the world isn’t doing nearly enough to reduce them.

“Even with all our reduction emissions strategies, we will probably not reach the objective of limiting global warming by +1.5C degrees,” said Claire Chenu, director of research at INRAE. “Capturing carbon from the atmosphere and nature-based solutions are one of the options.”

And this is where soil can play a major role, because of its ability to store carbon. “The scientific communities are working a lot on making quantitative estimates of how much additional carbon could be stored in soils,” she said. “What we do know is technically possible is to store between one and two additional gigatons of carbon — this would offset one third of the additional carbon that goes to the atmosphere.”

Claire Chénu discusses the role of soils in mitigating climate change with Paul Luu, Nigel Greening, Pauline Vicard and Jasper Saxgren at the World Living Soil Forum, June 2022

There are already initiatives in place to help address the issue, including the 4 per 1000 initiative introduced at the COP21 Paris climate summit. “If we increase the quantity of carbon in the soil by 0.4% each year, we may — theoretically — offset the additional carbon that human activity releases into the atmosphere every year,” said Paul Luu, Executive Secretary of the initiative.

As with all climate change initiatives, ‘carbon farming’ can only be effective if it’s widely adopted.

“Maybe the most difficult part if to change our way of thinking,” said Jesper Saxgren, founding member of the Regenerative Viticulture Foundation, explaining that there are hundreds, or even thousands, of years of tradition to overturn when it comes to practices like ploughing. “We learned that the plough was possibly one of the most important inventions of our civilization. It might turn out that it’s one of the most destructive, but it’s very difficult to change that concept. We also think that bare soil is the correct thing to have, even though we never find bare soil in nature.”

Bare soils aren’t just subject to erosion, they also can’t sequester carbon. “In my opinion, if we do not change the way we think, all the technological solutions will not help us,” Saxgren finished.

For more conversations on soil health, biodiversity, water management and our role in mitigating climate change: