News Brief

Soil Matters, Say Scientists at Ecosystem Conference

A recent conference highlighted the breadth of ecosystem services soils provide and spurred debate about how soil should be protected.

We rely on fertile soil not only to grow food but also to purify water, maintain biodiversity, and capture carbon.

Photo: NRCS Soil Health. License: CC BY 2.0
Leading scientists recently gathered at a conference to discuss the value of a natural resource that is often overlooked—soil. The “Soil’s Role in Restoring Ecosystem Services” conference was sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America, the Ecological Society of America, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the American Geophysical Union and spanned topics from food security to climate change.

“We have a Clean Air Act, and we have a Clean Water Act. What we don’t have is a Clean Soil Act,” Mary Stromberger, Ph.D., one of the conference organizers, told EBN. “It has been taken for granted, and people don’t recognize it as a resource.” Some of the most important conversations that came out of the conference, she continued, were about how to place value on soils so that they might be protected through regulation. Stromberger says she thinks the “majority favor economic assessment,” or a cost-benefit analysis of the services that soils provide, but predictably, there are concerns that quantifying the value of soil would allow it to be “sold to the highest bidder,” a particular concern where developing countries might sell their most fertile lands for foreign food production.

Closer to home, even urban soils should be recognized as “hyperfunctional landscapes” according to Richard Pouyat of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the keynote presenters. In addition to sequestering carbon and regulating water cycles, soil provides aesthetically pleasing natural spaces that can support human well-being. These services justify conserving soils as much as any other natural resource during the design and construction of the built environment, he suggests.

Published April 2, 2014

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