World Soil Day Interview with WWF-CEE Board Member Dr. Ladislav Miko
Posted on 05 December 2019
Of all the things that could capture the imagination of a young boy: rock-and-roll, dinosaurs, cars… what was it about soil that grabbed you so much that you have devoted your life to it?
As a young boy I enjoyed collecting beetles and butterflies with my grandfather. I dreamt that entomology would be a perfect profession for me. Unfortunately, during the Communist regime, students were unable to select exactly what they wanted to study. So, I studied general biology, but after my studies I found employment in my hometown of Kosice at the Institute of Agroecology studying soil life. I decided that was about as close as I could come to what I wanted to study, so I chose that.
You have been quoted as saying that we do not need to go to Africa to study biodiversity, “we have a Serengeti in our backyard.” Could you elaborate?
People have no idea about how truly diverse and interesting soil life and soil biodiversity is. If one were to extract organisms from the soil and observe them in the lab, you would see plenty of individuals that feed on decaying organic matter. The behaviour of some would exactly resemble a herd of herbivores on the Serengeti, while others would seem to act like predators like lions and leopards. It is like observing the myriad life on a safari in an African wildlife reserve. But in fact, any place in Europe has this in it, even your own backyard. I am not only speaking in terms of the variety of life, but also the processes and the numbers. In a single m2 of well-structured soil, there may be tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of organisms, not even counting microscopic life. Under a single step of your foot, there can be as many live individual organisms as the entire human population of the planet.
The theme for World Soil Day 2018 was “Be the solution to soil pollution.” The theme for 2019 is"Stop soil erosion, save our future" …what would you name the theme if you could? Soil pollution, erosion and everything else is interconnected. The most interesting issue is soil structure. If we protect, maintain and enhance soil structure we would cover almost everything. Good soil function depends on good soil structure, which is dependent on the amount of soil life and the organic matter it depends on.
World Soil Day was established to celebrate the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system and as a vital contributor to human well-being. Besides food crops, how does soil contribute to human well-being? No terrestrial ecosystem could work without soil. All the preconditions for human evolution are based on soil – for example, food, cultivation, water holding capacity and soil fertility. Water holding capacity is very important in terms of human well-being. Floods, mudslides and landslides all indicate that something wrong is happening with the soil. Soil health regulates all these things, and we only appreciate it when it is lost.
We can see many of the changes we have made to our planet, but some of our impacts are virtually invisible. Soil pollution is a good example of these lesser-seen impacts. Could you give an example? This depends on one’s viewpoint. Soils may look the same despite being degraded. But at the microscopic level, invisible in terms of soil structure, there are processes going on with visible consequences – such as the natural disasters I already mentioned. When the soil’s microscopic function is corrupted, there can be macroscopic effects. If we look on an EU map organic carbon content in soil and overlap that with another map of where the most intensive agriculture occurs, the areas of most depleted organic carbon content in soil corresponds with the areas of intensive agriculture.
People can envision why trees and forests are important in combating climate change, but very few realise that healthy soil also plays a major role. Can you speak a bit about that? This is my favourite aspect at the moment. Even though soil health represents CO2 storage and climate change mitigation, and its degradation accounts for maybe 20-30% of climate change problem, there is still not complete info about biomass below ground. Its importance is not sufficiently reflected yet. Harsh, aggressive measures are being taken to address other sources of climate change, but soil is being neglected. Proper management of our soil could work as a perfect carbon sink.
There are a number of threats to soil; including salinity, erosion, contamination, acidification, compaction, biodiversity loss, carbon loss, nutrient imbalance…In your opinion, what is the number one threat to healthy soil and what can we do about it? That is difficult, all are interconnected and work together. Sometimes one problem is bigger than another, but no one single thing that can solve it. We must ensure that there is the best army of helpers, soil life, to work for us. Their efficient cooperation depends on providing sufficient material and energy for them, in the form of dead organic matter, going back into the soil every year. Also, we should ensure the circumstances and conditions that would allow them to come back everywhere where we have damaged the soil. Landscape structure providing refuges for soil life is very important. Soil organisms require them to revive and recolonise degraded soil. If so, they could play a large part in restoring health to the planet.
In particular, what are the threats to soil and soil health in the CEE region? The threats are universal, not just in this region. However, the effects are perhaps more pronounced in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Slovakia and the Czech Republic where they have the biggest fields and most intensive agriculture.
WWF has announced its New Deal for Nature and People. Its goals include halting biodiversity and habitat loss by 2030, and halving our ecological footprint by the same date. What steps can be taken in regards to soil that would help us achieve those aims? Basically what I already said…guaranteeing a sufficient supply of organic matter, lower intensity farming, avoiding agricultural chemicals, and bringing natural processes back to soils. It is not always fully possible, yet there is a lot of space to use this approach. Good soil condition is crucial for soil biodiversity, and consequently climate.
People are fairly clear by now about minor behavioural changes at home that can have a positive impact on the environment, such as installing energy efficient lightbulbs, turning down the thermostat 1-2 degrees, installing a water aerator on a tap…what can we do as individuals about protecting our soil? You should not take organic matter from the soil unless you really need it, and put back as much as you can. Separate collection of organic waste and composting. Keep chemicals out of the soil. Follow the science…biofuels are at large not the answer. By taking too much carbon from the soil ecosystem in the form of corn for ethanol and then burn it as a biofuel - that carbon does not get returned to the soil. Biofuels may be seen as a renewable source of energy, but the soil needed to grow them is not. We must stop attacking and releasing fossil resources. Carbon locked in the soil is also a fossil fuel, and it must stay in the soil.
You recently released a new book on soil. Life in the Soil: A Handbook for Those Who Want to be Soil Biologists is not a textbook, but explains how the soil works in a way that I hope will attract young people to study soil. We have a soil problem, but we do not have sufficient scientific background about it yet. We ever only examine it in association with agriculture. We need to know more about how soil functions and the organisms in it. This territory is still largely unknown, and we need more experts to deal with soil and in a better way. That is why we need to attract new soil biologists.
Dr Ladislav Miko is currently the Head of the European Commission’s Representation in Slovakia. He is a former Czech Minister of Environment, and has had a number of senior positions in the European Commission.