Washington, DC - Soil performs a variety of vital functions, including supporting plant and animal life and filtering contaminants from water and the air. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) asserts that “soils need to be recognized and valued not only for their productive capacities but also for their contribution to the maintenance of key ecosystem services.” Soil not only serves as the basis for food, feed, fuel, and fiber production, but is also central for the provision of clean water, nutrient cycling, and storing carbon.

A single teaspoon of soil contains more microorganisms than there are people on Earth. And researchers are still discovering the benefits of these microorganisms—in 2015, scientists announced that the first new antibiotic in 30 years had been found in soil bacteria

According to FAO, the current rate of soil degradation is compromising food security and the provision of ecosystem services, both now and for future generations. Maria Helena Semedo of the FAO says that all of the world’s topsoil could diminish within the next 60 years if current rates of degradation continue. Other U.N. and government officials are calling for stronger management of the planet’s soils, stating that it could “make or break” climate change response efforts.

According to the 2015 U.N. report, Status of the World’s Soil Resources, the loss of soil resources and functions can be avoided if more sustainable practices are promptly implemented. Thankfully, there are many researchers committed to understanding and teaching about soil health and sustainable management practices. This World Soil Day, Food Tank is highlighting 13 soil scientists from around the globe working to better understand soils and promote practices for maintaining healthy, fertile lands.

1.Dominique Arrouays, InfoSol Unit 

Dominique Arrouays is a French agronomist with more than 35 years of experience researching soil management and protection. As a senior researcher at the French National Institute for Agronomic Research, Arrouays created the Soil Quality Monitoring Network, a unique national soil monitoring program cataloging more than 13,000 samples of French soils and their changes over time. In 2012, he became the scientific coordinator for the international GlobalSoilMap project, which produces a digital map of soil properties from across the globe.

2. Megan Balks, Waikato University

Megan Balks is a senior lecturer in Earth Sciences at Waikato University, New Zealand. She is currently Secretary of the Antarctica and Sub-Antarctic Permafrost, Soils and Periglacial Environments Group (ANTPAS), specializing in Antarctic soils and permafrost research. Balks is a Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Soil Science, where she was honored with the Norman Taylor Memorial Lecture award for outstanding contributions to soil science in New Zealand in 2008. She was the first woman to ever receive the award.

3. Borris Boincean, Alecu Russo State University

Borris Boincean is the chair of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Agroecology at the Alecu Russo State University in Balti, Republic of Moldova. For more than 30 years, Boincean has conducted long-term field experiments with crop rotations, monoculture, soil fertilization, irrigation, and tillage at the Selectia Research Institute of Field Crops. In 2011, Boincean co-authored the book The Black Earth, which analyzes the state of black soils, or chernozem, around the world and provides recommendations for its sustainable use and management.

4. Eric Brevik, Dickinson State University

Eric Brevik is a professor of geology and soils in the Department of Natural Sciences at Dickinson State University. Brevik researches the links between soil science and culture, including the impact of humans on soil properties and processes. In 2013, he co-edited the first edition of Soils and Human Health, which discusses ways the soil science community can contribute to the improvement of soil and human health. In 2016, Brevik received the Soil Science of America Award for outstanding contributions to agronomy through education and research.

5. Anya Byg, James Hutton Institute

Anya Byg is a researcher with the Social, Economic, and Geographical Science Group at the James Hutton Institute, Scotland. Byg has conducted interdisciplinary research on human-environment relationships and environmental changes across Africa, South America, and Asia. She is currently researching the sustainable use and management of soils and the environment by different cultures.

6. Arnulfo Encina Rojas, Paraguayan Society of Soil Science

Arnulfo Encina Rojas is a professor at the National University of Asuncion, Paraguay, and member of the Paraguayan Society of Soil Science (SOPACIS). Rojas was a major contributor to the FAO’s Global Soil Partnership Plan of Action, providing recommendations for sustainable soil management and conservation. He is also a key contributor to the first-ever Soil Atlas of Latin America and the Caribbean, illustrating the diverse soils that can be found in the region. He regularly publishes articles on factors affecting soil health for Paraguayan news outlets.

7.  Jerry Glover, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

Jerry Glover is the Senior Sustainable Agricultural Systems Advisor for USAID, working to build more resilient food and agricultural systems for small-holder farmers around the world. Glover has studied a range of natural and farmed ecosystems, with a focus on utilizing perennial crops and trees to improve soil health and increase crop yields. Glover’s work has been featured in popular publications such as National Geographic and Scientific American, as well as scientific journals. In 2008, Nature identified Glover as “one of five crop researchers who can change the world.”

8. Maria de Lourdes Mendonça Santos, Embrapa

Maria de Lourdes Mendonça Santos is the General Director at Embrapa: Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. She has coordinated several research projects on soil, at both national and international levels, with a focus on digital soil mapping, land degradation, and sustainable agriculture. She is one of 27 experts on the FAO’s Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils and leader of the Latin American node at GlobalSoilMapping.Net.

9. Alexander McBratney, University of Sydney

Alexander McBratney is Director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture and a professor of soil science at the University of Sydney. He is considered a world-leading soil scientist, having made major contributions to the development of the soil science methods pedometrics, digital soil mapping, and precision agriculture. He is one of only three recipients of the International Union of Soil Sciences’ Dokuchaev Award, awarded every four years for major research accomplishments in soil science.

10. Pardon Muchaonyerwa, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Pardon Muchaonyerwa is an Associate Professor of soil science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. For more than 15 years, Muchaonyerwa has researched soil ecosystem function and health and sustainable agriculture across several African countries. He is currently a member of the Soil Science Society of South Africa and the International Union of Soil Science.

11. Ashok K. Patra, Indian Institute of Soil Science

Ashok K. Patra is the Director of the ICAR-Indian Institute of Soil Science in Bhopal, India. For more than 30 years, Patra has studied how to sustain soil resources for food security, with a research focus on nutrient cycling, soil biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Patra has made a significant research contribution on the different aspects of nitrogen cycling and has published more than 200 scientific publications for a range of international journals. He is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Bharat Jyoti Award and Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award.

12. Sieglinde Snapp, Michigan State University

Sieglinde Snapp is Professor of soils and cropping systems ecology and part of the Ecological Food and Farming Systems specialization program at Michigan State University. Snapp’s research focuses on understanding the principles of resilient cropping system design and biologically based soil management and has spanned more than 16 countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Paraguay. She is the Associate Director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, working to inform both public and private decisionmaking on critical global environmental change issues.

13. Karen Vaughan, University of Wyoming

Karen Vaughan is Assistant Professor of soil pedology at the University of Wyoming. Vaughan’s research and teaching are focused on plant-soil interrelationships, wetland ecosystem functions, and natural resource education. She is the recipient of two Wyoming NASA Space Grants for enhancing science research in Wyoming. As part of the Storytelling Science through Film Workshop, Vaughan wrote and directed the short film “Science for All” to share the importance of soil science research with a broader audience.