Soil and its sustainability

Healthy and productive soils are central to achieving a number of the 17 sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly this year. Soils sustain our food systems, filter and regulate the flow of freshwater, store vast quantities of carbon and support myriad organisms. But the world’s soils are increasingly under pressure from climate change, population growth and poor land management.

This collection brings together a selection of articles that explore soil in its manifold roles in shaping the Earth’s environment and human society. The make-up and management of soils, and their influence on human health and extreme poverty, are some of the topics investigated.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils to raise awareness of the life-supporting functions of soil.  We hope that the collection supports this aim and that the Year of Soils is a starting point for improved understanding, better protection and sustainable management of this precious resource.

News and Opinion

  • Nature News | Comment

    Luca Montanarella calls for a voluntary international agreement to protect the ground beneath our feet from erosion and degradation.

    • Luca Montanarella
  • Nature Plants | News & Views

    The fields of ecology and evolutionary biology are implicitly connected. A new theory that links the global distribution and evolution of nitrogen-fixing trees uses the universal language of mathematics to make this connection more explicit.

    • Benjamin Z. Houlton
  • Nature Plants | News

    Soil microorganisms have long been known to aid plants through nitrogen fixation and water and nutrient exchange. Now researchers are unearthing new ways in which this subterranean biome affects plant performance.

    • Karl Gruber
  • Nature Geoscience | News & Views

    Decomposition of soil organic matter could be an important positive feedback to climate change. Geochemical properties of soils can help determine what fraction of soil carbon may be protected from climate-induced decomposition.

    • Eric A. Davidson
  • Nature Plants | Comment

    The tremendous gains in crop yields seen over the twentieth century were underpinned by fertilizer use and manipulation of the aboveground parts of the plant. To meet the food demands of the twenty-first century, plant scientists must turn their attention belowground.

    • Anthony Bishopp
    •  &  Jonathan P. Lynch
  • Nature News | News Feature

    Climate change is a major threat to food production, so researchers are working with farmers to make agriculture more resilient.

    • Quirin Schiermeier


  • Nature | Perspective

    The potential of soils to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions has not been exploited; here we discuss and recommend research and technology developments to implement mitigation practices.

    • Keith Paustian
    • , Johannes Lehmann
    • , Stephen Ogle
    • , David Reay
    • , G. Philip Robertson
    •  &  Pete Smith
  • Nature | Perspective

    Careful management of nitrogen fertilizer usage is required to ensure world food security while limiting environmental degradation; an analysis of historical nitrogen use efficiency reveals socio-economic factors and technological innovations that have influenced a range of past national trends and that suggest ways to improve global food production and environmental stewardship by 2050.

    • Xin Zhang
    • , Eric A. Davidson
    • , Denise L. Mauzerall
    • , Timothy D. Searchinger
    • , Patrice Dumas
    •  &  Ye Shen
  • Nature Geoscience | Perspective

    Low soil fertility can limit crop productivity, which in turn constrains the ability of poor households to invest in improving soils. This self-reinforcing feedback can trap households in chronic poverty for years or even generations.

    • Christopher B. Barrett
    •  &  Leah E. M. Bevis
  • Nature | Perspective

    Instead of containing stable and chemically unique ‘humic substances’, as has been widely accepted, soil organic matter is a mixture of progressively decomposing organic compounds; this has broad implications for soil science and its applications.

    • Johannes Lehmann
    •  &  Markus Kleber
  • Nature | Perspective

    Soil biodiversity sustains human health and its loss can be mitigated by sustainable management.

    • Diana H. Wall
    • , Uffe N. Nielsen
    •  &  Johan Six
  • Nature Communications | Review Article | open

    Belowground soil biota play key roles in maintaining proper ecosystem functioning, but studies on their extinction ecology are sparse. Here, Veresoglou et al. review the risks to soil biota posed by global change, and highlight the technical challenges involved in identifying extinction events.

    • Stavros D. Veresoglou
    • , John M. Halley
    •  &  Matthias C. Rillig