‘Soil loss poses threat to human life’ – Andrew Medal Lecture 2021

1 July 2021


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Annual soil degradation poses threat to human life and costs over £1.5 billion according to new research

'SCI Andrew Medal Lecture 2021 - Soil resources in the UK - overlooked and undervalued'

The thin layer of soil over the earth's surface is critical to human survival according to Professor Jane Rickson of Cranfield University. Soil is a finite, non-renewable natural resource and current rates of soil erosion show that some soils may disappear completely by 2050. In addition, the economic costs of soil degradation exceed £1.5 billion per year in England and Wales alone.

Professor Rickson delivered this stark warning at yesterday evening's Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) Andrew Medal Memorial Lecture 2021. She received the award for her outstanding work in the area of 'neglected science.'

Professor Rickson is Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University. This year she was named as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering. In her Andrew Medal Lecture, 'Soil resources in the UK - overlooked and undervalued,' she explained that soil health directly relates to sustainable development goals such as zero hunger, sustainable cities and clean water and sanitation. She outlined that an estimated 12 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide are lost to soil degradation every year. Climate change has resulted in rainfall which is more frequent, extreme and of longer duration, having a greater impact on soil erosion.

According to Professor Rickson:

"The word ‘soil’ has long had negative cultural connotations. We talk of 'muddying the waters' and in the United States, soil is known as 'dirt', yet this is far from the reality. This brown, muddy material is actually a very dynamic and functional part of natural capital that underpins a lot of the things we take for granted. We must begin to value soil as a finite resource essential to human survival. Soil delivers diverse benefits to society as a whole and has direct links to individuals’ well-being and national economic status.

"Around 97 per cent of our food comes from terrestrial sources," she continued, "As well as the production of food, fibre, fodder and bio (fuel), soils regulate our water supplies and mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and storage. We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops in taking out atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"Soils also provide habitats for biodiversity and make important contributions to our cultural life. Most countries throughout the world have agreed that to make the world a better place, we should be working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I would argue that soil is related to most, if not all of those goals."

The lecture reflected why Professor Rickson has been awarded SCI's Andrew Medal for her work. Dr Sydney Andrew, a chemical engineer working for ICI, was a long time SCI member who exemplified the Society’s mission to encourage the application of chemistry and related sciences for public benefit. He died in 2011 and bequeathed a substantial share of his estate to SCI for the founding of the Andrew Medal Lecture, to be presented every third year on the theme of neglected science. These are areas of science which, through importance in agriculture and the chemical industry, receive scant attention.

Sharon Todd, SCI CEO said:

"SCI is proud to recognise Professor Rickson for her outstanding record of work. She has over 30 years’ experience of research, consultancy and teaching in soil and water engineering, specialising in soil degradation and sustainable land management. Her work has focused on better understanding of soil functions and their role in delivering ecosystems goods and services, including agricultural production, water regulation and carbon storage. She is also an excellent role model for the next generation of women in science.

"I am pleased Professor Rickson was also able to describe some solutions to the problems discussed - such as regenerative agriculture. SCI promotes the translation of science into business for the public good and soil 'stewardship' is exactly that - looking after our land for generations to come."


For more information or an interview with Professor Rickson or Sharon Todd, please contact Maxine Boersma on 07771 563373.

Notes to editors:

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