CSU scientists play key role in first-ever global report on soil biodiversity

a cyanobacteria-dominated biocrust in the Tabernas desert in Spain

The crust on this soil surface is dominated by blue-green algae, or cyanoabacteria, in the Tabernas desert in Spain. Photo: Emilio Rodriguez

On Dec. 5, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations releases a first-of-its-kind report, “State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity: Status, challenges and potentialities,” a collaborative effort by more than 300 scientists around the world. This project was led by several organizations, including the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, whose leadership team is based at Colorado State University.

 University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall, scientific chair of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, and Monica Farfan, executive director, talked with SOURCE about the new report and what it means for soil ecology and research.

 Wall is also the director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU. Farfan studies mite communities and holds a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Question: What is the significance of the new UN report?

Answer: Monica Farfan

This is really the first time that an informative report on soil biodiversity has been produced by a coalition of scientific experts. It is an important tool for policymakers to be able to incorporate into their decision-making on all biodiversity. When we talk about biodiversity, there is a gigantic amount in soils that is underappreciated because it is unseen for the most part.

A: Diana Wall

When we think of biodiversity most people consider all biodiversity on lands, to be above ground, and not below ground. Up until recently, scientists and the public did not have an appreciation for all the different types of organisms that keep soils fertile and healthy. The knowledge base was so splintered. I have recently heard from researchers around the world who are saying what I’ve talked about for some time: We need to get all disciplines working on and looking at microbes and organisms and what they do for ecosystems and people. How does what is happening below ground affect above-ground life?

Q: How did the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative get involved in this project?

A: Wall

The Secretariat, or leadership team for the initiative, is based at the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU. We partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and others to produce the report. This came as a mandate from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which was held in Egypt in November 2018.

Q: What does it mean for CSU to have this lead role in producing the report?

A: Wall

It is recognition that CSU is an outstanding place for scientific research and outreach on soil science and soil ecology. This includes studying life in soils, and land managers incorporating soils as part of a terrestrial ecosystem. Scientists in multiple colleges are involved in this type of research. Studying the microbes and animals in soil is not just focused in one department, and that excellence in research brings international researchers to CSU.

The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative was started by a bunch of scientists – including me – who realized that the science had advanced so quickly and we knew so much about what the organisms below ground do, and what they do for us. But there was a gap in that the information was not being widely shared with people who manage lands around the world. We started the initiative as a scientific network to improve sharing the science, and, with policymakers, came up with a plan to produce an assessment. It was a step that came logically. We’ve been talking about it for five years.

Learn more on Jan. 21

The Global Soil Biodiversity initiative will host a webinar to discuss the new report on Jan. 21, 2021. Scientists who contributed to the new report will talk about the importance of this report for the future of research and policy.

Register online for the webinar: https://col.st/ntwFD

Q: You’ve been working in the soil ecology realm for a long time. Has the level of general awareness changed recently?

A: Wall

Scientists in many disciplines are recognizing and are starting to think outside of the box in soil ecology. I was asked recently to review a research paper in which scientists are exploring a possible relationship with SARS-CoV-2 and soils. They are looking into whether the virus remains in dust, and how small the particles are. Here at CSU, some faculty have submitted a proposal to look at the relationship of the aerobiome with soils. The other group of scientists that will help bring this topic along are epidemiologists who work on human and animal diseases that may exist in soils, everything from anthrax to soil-transmitted helminths, or parasitic worms. These are all areas being looked at by groups including the United Nations and World Health Organization.

A: Farfan

One of the great ways we are trying to engage and educate through our network is by using the power of imagery to show people who may not be in the science realm what these animals look like. These creatures living underground are colorful, have beautiful shapes and they jump really high. For us to have a network of people who adore these organisms, and to have the ability for us to share imagery and videos of how these animals move, eat and how they are able to sense their environment is huge in terms of getting soil biodiversity into the public consciousness.

Q: What, if any, parallels do you see between this report and other ‘first-ever’ scientific assessments?

A: Wall

I would compare the increasing awareness on soil health to the Clean Water Act, which was designed in 1948 as a pollution control effort, but then reorganized and expanded in 1972.

There’s a lot of discovery going on below ground, using technologies to see how carbon flows, looking at the enzymes in soil, estimating disturbance or threats to soils and the biodiversity. How does that compare with what’s taking place above ground, and what’s going to happen with climate change? Scientists are also studying droughts and the effect on fauna and microbes on the prairie.

Q: This new report hits at a time of changing federal leadership in the United States. Is that timing important?

A: Wall

Yes. You’d better believe it. During the Obama Administration, there were several meetings called by the White House related to soil health in all lands, not just agriculture, and I was invited to take part because of the many scientists we represent globally, from taxonomists to geochemists who work in urban, agriculture and all ecosystems. That had never happened in my lifetime.

I am hopeful that it’s going to be different from the last four years and positive under the Biden Administration, and that federal leadership will continue to pay attention to biodiversity in all lands beyond agriculture and soil health.

CSU collaborators

CSU researchers who also worked on the report include Research Associate Andre Franco (Department of Biology), Associate Professor Steve Fonte (Department of Agroecosystem Ecology), Assistant Professor Pankaj Trevedi (Department of Agricultural Biology) and Professor and Department Head Matt Wallenstein (Department of Soil & Crop Sciences).

Elizabeth Bach and Carl Wepking, in their roles as past executive directors of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, also contributed to review of the report. 

 Bach is now an ecosystem restoration scientist with Nachusa Grasslands, primarily owned by The Nature Conservancy, in Franklin Grove, Illinois. Wepking is a research program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.