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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor Karen Johnson

Johnson, K.L., Philip, D. & Engels, C. (2020). The ABC of Soil Literacy - Evidence from Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Durham, Durham University.

Author(s) from Durham


Climate change and soil health are intimately linked, as reflected in the United Nation’s
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15. Land degradation is responsible for a significant
proportion of all global greenhouse gas emissions (WGII, IPCC, 2007), thereby
significantly contributing to climate change. At the same time, the recognised impacts of
climate change take various forms, all of which directly impact soil health, such as those caused
by heat (wildfires and droughts) or wind and water (hurricanes and floods). In 2018, the lives
and livelihoods of 39 million across the globe were affected by climate change (United Nations:
Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020a). Taken together, this constitutes a vicious
circle between soil degradation and climate change with detrimental results.

The equal importance of combating climate change and securing soil health as global
challenges is represented by SDG13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its
impacts” (United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020a) and SDG15:
“Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems” (United Nations:
Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020b). More broadly, healthy soils are the key
cornerstone for all 17 SDGs (United Nations, 2008). Therefore, understanding the attitudes,
behaviours and competencies that drive individual interactions with soil, including factors that
promote or harm soil health, is crucial to inform policy responses that aim at facilitating
sustainable interactions with soil by future global citizens and farming communities.
This report is the first to establish the concept of soil literacy, to provide approaches to
its measurement and to report estimates of its levels in the population of school children in
three African countries: Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It defines soil literacy as a
combination of attitudes, behaviours and competencies required to make sound decisions that
promote soil health and ultimately contribute to the maintenance and enhancement of the
natural environment.