Ensuring planetary survival: the centrality of organic carbon in balancing the multifunctional nature of soils

Peter M. Kopittke, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Yolima Carrillo, Timothy R. Cavagnaro, Deli Chen, Qing Lin Chen, Mercedes Román Dobarco, Feike A. Dijkstra, Damien J. Field, Michael J. Grundy, Ji Zheng He, Frances C. Hoyle, Ingrid Kögel-Knabner, Shu Kee Lam, Petra Marschner, Cristina Martinez, Alex B. McBratney, Eve McDonald-Madden, Neal W. Menzies, Luke M. MosleyCarsten W. Mueller, Daniel V. Murphy, Uffe N. Nielsen, Anthony G. O’Donnell, Elise Pendall, Jennifer Pett-Ridge, Cornelia Rumpel, Iain M. Young, Budiman Minasny*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Not only do soils provide 98.7% of the calories consumed by humans, they also provide numerous other functions upon which planetary survivability closely depends. However, our continuously increasing focus on soils for biomass provision (food, fiber, and energy) through intensive agriculture is rapidly degrading soils and diminishing their capacity to deliver other vital functions. These tradeoffs in soil functionality–the increased provision of one function at the expense of other critical planetary functions–are the focus of this review. We examine how land-use change for biomass provision has decreased the ability of soils to regulate the carbon pool and thereby contribute profoundly to climate change, to cycle the nutrients that sustain plant growth and ecosystem health, to protect the soil biodiversity upon which many other functions depend, and to cycle the Earth’s freshwater supplies. We also examine how this decreasing ability of soil to provide these other functions can be halted and reversed. Despite the complexity and the interconnectedness of soil functions, we show that soil organic carbon plays a central role and is a master indicator for soil functioning and that we require a better understanding of the factors controlling the behavior and persistence of C in soils. Given the threats facing humanity and their economies, it is imperative that we recognize that Soil Security is itself an existential challenge and that we need to increase our focus on the multiple functions of soils for long-term human welfare and survivability of the planet.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4308-4324
Number of pages17
JournalCritical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology
Issue number23
StatePublished - 2022


  • Carbon
  • carbon sequestration
  • ecosystem services
  • Frederic Coulon and Lena Ma
  • soil organic carbon (SOC)
  • sustainable development goals

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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