The GSBI at COP 14: UNCBD, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt


Dr. Kelly S. Ramirez

Research Scientist

Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) – or COP 14 for short (1). I was invited as a representative of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) to give a keynote talk in the session “Soil is the Nexus” during Agriculture Day - one of the many side events that are organized along-side the official COP working group sessions (2). (Because the majority of the COP terms and acronyms are discipline specific jargon I have put together a glossary below.)

While the first objective of the CBD (3) is to ‘conserve biodiversity,’ soil biodiversity has received far less attention than more visible, aboveground diversity. Yet, it is well agreed upon that healthy soils, sustainable agriculture and all ecosystem services are reliant on soil biodiversity. This year the COP was to vote for the first time on the inclusion of soil biodiversity measurements in global soil assessments – referred to as ‘a mandate’. Because of this, a special session “Soil is the Nexus” was organized during Agriculture Day by Ronald Vargas and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The aim of the session was to demonstrate how soil (and soil biodiversity) can be the nexus for the three UN Conventions: CBD, Convention on Climate Change (CCC), and Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).

As the keynote speaker to this session I presented on the role and importance of soil biodiversity for the ‘nexus’. I pointed to my own study in Central Park, NYC where we found >150K types of soil taxa (Ramirez et al. 2015). This finding of extreme biodiversity was not unique to Central Park or urban soils but rather it demonstrates the breadth of biodiversity in all soils. Though research demonstrates how vast and important soil biota are in ecosystem services, in policy and management decisions soil biodiversity remains under-acknowledged.

Dr. Kelly S. Ramirez (second from right) at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity 14th Conference of the Parties (UN-CBD-COP 14). Photo credit  IISD Reporting Services.

Dr. Kelly S. Ramirez (second from right) at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity 14th Conference of the Parties (UN-CBD-COP 14). Photo credit IISD Reporting Services.

Why include soil biodiversity? Because soil biodiversity is important to so many ecosystem services (also referred to as multifunctionality), consideration of soil biodiversity in global conservation agendas has the potential to simultaneously address multiple Sustainable Development Goals (4) and Aichi Targets (5). For example, when we consider soil biodiversity for humanity: soil organisms produce antibiotics used to treat disease, control crop pests, reduce the need for fertilizer application, and cycle nutrients which support plant growth, including food crops. Collectively, management to promote soil biodiversity for humanity directly benefits two SDGs and three Aichi Targets.

Over the last two decades soil biodiversity has received more and more attention. In fact, many countries and regions have already started taking the first steps. Mexico (where COP 12 was held) has already started assessing and addressing management solutions to their major problem of land degradation. The actions of Mexico have in turn encouraged the UNCBD to act more globally. Similarly, this year I worked with EASAC on a report led by Prof Wim van der Putten “Opportunities for soil sustainability in Europe.” We found that identifying regional solutions were more efficient to address, yet the real test will be implementation at the EU level. Now, the recent CBD mandate marks yet another opportunity to include soil biodiversity in decision making and address the sustainability challenges of our society. This mandate builds upon recent work by the GSBI which has been pushing for an assessment together with the JRC and others for over five years.

As a scientist, it is my responsibility to make my results and data accessible, and to identify practice solutions for use in the management and policy. It is also my responsibility to translate results for public engagement. Soil biodiversity is a part of biodiversity that anyone with a patch of soil can enjoy and explore, what better way to engage new biologists or garner appreciation for nature than discovering soil organisms in your own backyard.

Ronald Vargas, Soil and Land Officer at FAO and Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership. Photo credit  IISD Reporting Services.

Ronald Vargas, Soil and Land Officer at FAO and Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership. Photo credit IISD Reporting Services.


1) There are many Conference of the Parties (COP) - each with representation from 197 countries and territories; COP are the governing, decision making bodies of the various UN Conventions. You are likely familiar with the UN Convention on Climate Change or Convention (UNCCC). Every other year the CBD COP meets, and thus this year is the 14th meeting of the UNCBD.

2) Working groups elaborate guidelines and recommendations for the implementation of different articles of the CBD – it is here that the bureaucracy and decision making happens.

3) Each Convention has their own meetings and objectives. The objectives of the CBD include: 1. The conservation of biological diversity; 2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity; 3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. Climate change and land degradation continue to threaten global sustainability. The CBDs objectives offer a ‘biodiversity’ solution to these challenges.

4) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 17 goals developed by the UN address the global challenges including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice by 2030. 

5) Aichi Targets Strategic goals developed by the CBD to address biodiversity loss before 2020.