Advances in soil carbon could be the key to improving food security and water quality

Scientists from the University of Sheffield have identified advances in improving soil carbon management which could be the key to addressing serious global challenges affecting millions of people across the world.

The Global Advances in Soil Carbon Management recommendations, which have been compiled by a team of international scientists, could have a significant impact on land degradation, food security, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions from land.

SoilThe recommendations, which aim to protect and improve soil carbon levels in soils around the world, have been released on World Soil Day (5 December 2014) – a UN international awareness day which strives to connect people with soils and demonstrate their critical importance in our lives.

Professor Steve Banwart, project co-chair who is from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, said: “Soil carbon in the form of organic matter is a huge asset worldwide. Its vital role to support food production and environmental quality is taken for granted.

“There have been significant declines in soil carbon just in the past few decades due to intensive land use. Protecting and improving soil carbon levels in soils around the world is essential for sustained economic development and environmental protection.”

The key recommendations highlighted by the 75-strong project team from 17 countries world-wide include:

  • Stopping soil carbon losses from organic-rich soils such as peatlands and from drylands where soils are vulnerable due to low soil carbon content
  • Promoting soil carbon gains through active soil management in agricultural lands that have experienced historical losses of soil carbon
  • Greatly expanding soil and land management from local scale decisions to increased national and international actions to deliver large-scale benefits worldwide
  • Reducing the fragmentation in policy for soil and land management, which is often scattered between government sectors for agriculture, environment, energy and water resources
  • A global research effort to increase soils carbon content, quantify the soil improvements and to adapt improved soil carbon management to land and climate conditions around the world

The recommendations and a vast background of compiled scientific evidence have been drawn from a two-year international Rapid Assessment Process (RAP) project Benefits of Soil Carbon. The RAP was organised through the Scientific Committee for Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

The project recruited the wide range of experts in order to draw together the fragmented and complex science and policy information on soil carbon and its essential role supporting land ecosystems and human life.

Project co-chairman Professor Elke Noellemeyer, from the National University of La Pampa, Argentina, said: “Conventional agriculture often harms soil carbon levels but there are many practical ways that are used to improve soil carbon in farmland. These practical steps need to be expanded and adapted to local conditions worldwide.”

Professor Jerry Melillo, leader of the USA Global Change Research Programme’s 2014 report on climate change and a past-president of SCOPE, added “These recommendations are a thoughtful and positive statement that offers practical actions that can be taken to tackle these major global change challenges. Managing soil effectively is one of the most important tasks facing society in this century”.

The full recommendations and supporting scientific evidence for policy and practice innovation in soil carbon managements are released as an authoritative volume SCOPE, Volume 71), published by CAB International.

SCOPE 71 considers a range of topics related to soil carbon. This information-rich
assessment includes a plain language discussion of the many free services that soil carbon provides for society, as well as a clearly thought through set of options available for managing soil carbon for the benefit of future generations. SCOPE 71 is a valuable resource for policy makers and land managers who are working to build a more sustainable planet.

For the past 45 years the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), has been working across scientific, cultural and political boundaries, and has produced a series of high profile, policy-relevant scientific assessments on global environmental issues.

These assessments have helped to bridge the gap between fundamental research and the application of scientific knowledge in management and policy practices. This newest volume in the assessment series, SCOPE 71, focuses on soil carbon, a critical component of the biosphere’s natural capital that is now under increasing pressure from a growing human population, projected to reach more than ten billion people by the end of the 21st century.

Further pioneering research in soil, food and energy security is currently taking place at the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. The Centre focuses on advancing the science of sustainability and connecting it with the policy debate about how humans can live in a more sustainable way.

Additional information

The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures
The Grantham Centre was launched after being awarded a £2.6 million philanthropic donation – the largest individual gift received from an alumnus in the last decade – to further enhance its pioneering research into harnessing the power of the sun to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.
The centre will build on the University’s world-leading reputation for research, particularly in areas such as food and energy security, as well as its long commitment to public engagement and its position of trust and credibility, to confront and debate the challenges that we all must face in developing sustainable futures.As part of this mission, the Centre will develop a cadre of young scientists who are equipped to lead the changes in behaviour and understanding that are required.

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The University of Sheffield
With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Amy Pullan
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859