New book by Jo Handelsman explores soil crisis causes, solutions

Jo Handelsman, professor of plant pathology, is the author of the recently published book “A World Without Soil: The Past, Present and Precarious Future of the Earth Beneath our Feet.” Published by Yale University Press, it is described as a scientist’s manifesto addressing a soil loss crisis accelerated by poor conservation practices and climate change.

Below is a fuller description from the book’s website:

[The book] lays bare the complex connections among climate change, soil erosion, food and water security, and drug discovery. A World Without Soil is an uplifting story because Handelsman shows us the actions that will avert the crisis.

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, 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.

Handelsman is a Vilas Research Professor of Plant Pathology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and director of WID. Her research focuses on understanding diversity in microbial communities and the effect these microbiomes have on human health and soil environments. Handelsman earned her doctorate at UW–Madison and joined the faculty, eventually serving as chair of the Department of Bacteriology. Before returning to UW–Madison to direct WID, Handelsman served as a science advisor to President Barack Obama as the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2014 to 2017.