A World Without Soil by celebrated biologist Jo Handelsman lays bare the complex connections among climate change, soil erosion, food and water security, and drug discovery.
Humans depend on soil for 95 percent of global food production, yet let it erode at unsustainable rates. In the United States, China, and India, vast tracts of farmland will be barren of topsoil within this century. The combination of intensifying erosion caused by climate change and the increasing food needs of a growing world population is creating a desperate need for solutions to this crisis.
Writing for a nonspecialist audience, Jo Handelsman celebrates the capacities of soil and explores the soil-related challenges of the near future. She begins by telling soil's origin story, explains how it erodes and the subsequent repercussions worldwide, and offers solutions. She considers lessons learned from indigenous people who have sustainably farmed the same land for thousands of years, practices developed for large-scale agriculture, and proposals using technology and policy initiatives.
Jo Handelsman is the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and a Vilas Research Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Handelsman previously served as a science advisor to President Barack Obama.
Kayla Cohen has provided research and creative contributions to A World Without Soil. She is completing a master’s degree in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics.
"Jo Handelsman is a national treasure, and her clarion call warning of a looming soil-loss catastrophe must be heard. Add her clearly written alarm to other future-shocks: climate change, pandemics, and mass extinctions."
– Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance
"The ground beneath our feet is slipping away as we lose the precious soil that sustains us. Jo Handelsman's writing – as rich and life supporting as the soil itself – is a riveting warning. She tells us eloquently about the danger we're in, but also what we can do about it."
– Alan Alda, actor, writer, and host of the podcast Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda
"A truly delightful book about soil! Jo Handelsman brilliantly describes in fascinating detail the origin, structure, and contributions to human health by the very ground of Planet Earth."
– Rita Colwell, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland and former Director, National Science Foundation
"A World Without Soil is an optimistic and compelling look at the challenges surrounding one of earth's most vital natural resources. Jo Handelsman presents rigorously researched and compelling solutions to advance policy changes we need today – in order to ensure our future."
– Howard W. Buffett, co-author of 40 Chances and Social Value Investing, and 2001 FFA State Soil Judging Champion
"A significant and inspirational book. Jo Handelsman richly narrates the integral connections and interdependencies of soil, a living entity which lies at the heart of our sustenance, survival and wellbeing."
– Garth Harmsworth, senior indigenous Maori scientist (Toi Rangahau), Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research, New Zealand
"This passionate exposé reveals that ongoing degradation of soils worldwide, largely by erosion, will lead to reductions in our ability to supply food for the growing human population. The picture is most alarming, indeed."
– William H. Schlesinger, author of Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change
"A World Without Soil goes to the heart of one of the most overlooked and underappreciated of environmental issues: the importance of soil, its stewardship, and the central role it plays in the climate change challenge."
– Thomas E. Lovejoy, co-editor of Biodiversity and Climate Change
"Jo Handelsman artfully weaves together stories of life on Earth, the origins and makeup of soils, human dependence on soils, and her own journey to reveal the incredible importance of stewarding this 'humble' resource."
– Ingrid C. "Indy" Burke, Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean, Yale School of the Environment
"A World Without Soil is an engaging page-turner making a very convincing case that soil is a big deal. Jo Handelsman's optimism, charming stories, and deft understanding of the history of soils and agriculture makes this an enjoyable read for all."
– Elizabeth Stulberg, Science Policy Manager, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America
"People are the mirror image of the soil. Soil quality; primary control of healthy plants, animals, people, ecosystems and planetary processes; is the path to the U. N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development"
– Rattan Lal, author of The Soil Human-Health Nexus
"A manifesto for improved soil conservation and management [...] What distinguishes Handelsman from her predecessors is her optimism about our ability to reverse the course of soil loss [...] A book for a broad audience that will widen discussion and interest in soils and soil degradation."
– Daniel D. Richter, Science