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Soil workshop

Top soil scientists gather to highlight soil’s role as ‘foundation of life’

From antibiotics to food security, the soil underneath our feet has been the source of solutions to some of humanity’s most serious challenges.

However, the health of the soil itself is increasingly threatened by a host of problems, ranging from erosion that washes away productive soil to urbanization that paves over it.

Building appreciation for soil as the foundation of life and as a critical resource in need of protection was the goal of a recent one-day workshop hosted by the National Academies of Science and co-sponsored by the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) in Washington, D.C.

The meeting was held on Dec. 5, which was proclaimed World Soil Day by the United Nations in honor of the late King Bhumipol Aduldej of Thailand, whose birthday was Dec. 5 and whose name means “protector of the soil.” The king was a strong proponent of soil sustainability throughout his long reign.

Organized by the U.S. National Committee for Soil Sciences, the meeting was attended by 100 decision makers and members of the public and private sectors whose work depends on awareness of the latest soil research. An additional 100 people attended the workshop remotely via webcast.

Donald L. Sparks, Unidel S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil and Environmental Chemistry at the University of Delaware and chair of the U.S. National Committee for Soil Sciences, welcomed the participants.

“Soils are truly one of our greatest resources,” Sparks said in his opening remarks, echoing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comment on soil as the foundation of civilization: “A nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.”

Speakers included prominent scientists, engineers and policy specialists whose research illuminates the importance of soil for biodiversity, health, national security, water quality, climate change and sea level rise, food security and built infrastructure.

Two members of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy participated in the workshop, including Jo Handelsman, associate director for science, who spoke about soils and national security issues, and Richard Pouyat, assistant director for climate resilience and land use in the Environment and Energy Division, who took part in a panel discussion.

The University of Delaware was further represented at the workshop by Christopher Meehan, Bentley Systems Incorporated Chair of Civil Engineering and director of the Delaware Center for Transportation at UD, who spoke about the role of soils in infrastructure, as both a construction material and as a foundation which structures are built on, in and through.

“The workshop vividly illustrated the critical role that soils play in many of the most daunting challenges we face today and why we need to understand and conserve such a precious resource,” Sparks said.

The full agenda and speakers’ presentations are posted on the event website.

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