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World Soil Day: FAO Highlights the Threat of Soil Salinization to Global Food Security

5 December is celebrated as World Soil Day. In recent decades, soil quality has degraded significantly due to rapid urbanization and deforestation. As per the Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations ( FAO), soil salinization and sodification are major soil degradation processes threatening the ecosystem. These have created problems at a global level for agricultural production, food security, and sustainability in arid and semi-arid regions. Despite growing problems, a large portion of the earth’s open land cover remains inaccessible to soil analysis. According to a new report on soil shows 55 percent of countries surveyed lack adequate capacities for soil analysis.

World Soil Day 2021 (#WorldSoilDay) and its campaign “Halt soil salinization, boost soil productivity” aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, fighting soil salinization, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

As it marks World Soil Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has highlighted the threat posed by soil salinization to global food security and warned that many countries still lack the adequate capacity for soil analysis.

We are already analyzing the important role of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, LiDAR-based digital soil mapping/ GIS, IoT, and automation in various fields, helping decision-makers in solving critical problems linked with their operations. With the advancements in IoT and digital soil mapping and testing capabilities, we can hope to improve overall soil quality and usher in a new era in smart farming projects.

“Soil is the foundation of agriculture and the world’s farmers depend on soil to produce about 95% of the food we eat”, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said.

Qu added, “Yet, our soils are at risk,” he stressed in remarks ahead of the December 5 event on the theme: “Halt Soil Salinization, Boost Soil Productivity”.

Soil salinization occurs due to a combination of processes such as evaporation, salt precipitation and dissolution, and so on. Modern irrigation practices also lead to soil salinization due to uncontrolled actions resulting in a rise in groundwater levels

Among the critical issues are:

  • Unsustainable agricultural practices and the overexploitation of natural resources as well as a growing population are putting increased pressure on soils and causing alarming rates of soil degradation globally.
  • Over 833 million hectares of soils worldwide are already salt-affected, as shown on the Global salt-affected soils map launched by FAO in October.
  • Estimates indicate that more than 10% of cropland is salt-affected, which poses a major risk to food security worldwide.
  • Some of the worst affected regions are in Central Asia, the Middle East, South America, North Africa and the Pacific.

The management of salt-affected areas demands an integrated approach, embracing sustainable soil and irrigation and drainage management, the selection of salt-tolerant crops and plants including halophytes, which are able to grow well in such environments.

Collecting soil data and building sufficient capacity in the soil laboratories of FAO Member countries is essential to manage soil-affected land resources and pave the foundation towards digital agriculture in the future.

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The Director-General underlined the importance of generating reliable soil data as he announced the official launch of the Global Soil Laboratory Assessment Report. A joint effort by 241 laboratories in 142 countries, it is led by FAO’s Global Soil Partnership (GSP) and its Global Soil Laboratory Network (GLOSOLAN) composed of more than 760 laboratories worldwide.

The Report highlights the challenges, with 55 percent of countries surveyed lacking adequate analytical capacities, including human resources, harmonization procedures and equipment. Many are unable to meet the national demand for soil analysis in Africa, Asia, and Eurasia.

Qu stressed the importance of continuous investment in soil laboratories to provide reliable data on which sound decisions can be made to ensure sustainable soil management and prevent soil degradation. He added that the cost of inaction in maintaining and restoring soil health can have dramatic consequences for the UN’s sustainable development agenda.

FAO-led initiatives include a Global Soil Information System (GloSIS) and a newly-launched Global Soil Biodiversity Observatory, which will contribute to the global monitoring network and the forecasting of soil health.

The  COP26 highlighted the vital role of healthy soils in climate change mitigation and adaptation and in building resilience. And FAO has called on all countries to urgently improve their soil information and capacities by making stronger commitments towards sustainable soil management.

The European Union’s (EU) recent adoption of a new Soil Strategy, is a positive example, setting concrete and ambitious targets to improve soil health within and outside the Union, Qu said.

As part of the World Soil Day celebrations, prizes funded by Russia and Thailand are being awarded for outstanding contributions to this field. Russia’s Glinka prize was given to soil scientist Lydie-Stella Koutika from the Republic of the Congo, with over 40 years of experience in research on agroecosystems. Thailand’s King Bhumibol prize went to the Nigeria Institute of Soil Science (NISS) for raising awareness on the importance of healthy soils and the achievements in this field.

FAO’s work on soils

You can find out more on the FAO’s work on soils here, including the Global Soil Partnership (GSP), which helps develop collaboration and synergy among a range of stakeholders, from land users to policy makers. One of the key objectives of the GSP is to improve soil governance and promote sustainable management of soils.

Among its main functions are: the regular production of the Status of the World’s Soil Resources report; the development of soil information and data at all levels, supported by the development of digital soil mapping capacities in developing countries; the establishment of national soil information systems; the development of tools to enhance soil health and prevent degradation and the scaling-up of good practices on the ground; the creation and coordination of technical networks and advocacy for sustainable soil management.

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