Diouf was speaking at the start of a three-day meeting to launch a new Global Soil Partnership for Food security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.
"Soil is an essential component of the world's production systems and ecosystems," Diouf said. "But it is also a fragile and non-renewable resource. It is very easily degraded and it is slow, difficult and expensive to regenerate," he added.
Soil resources across the globe are subject to increased pressure from competing land uses and are affected by extensive degradation processes that rapidly deplete the limited amounts of soils and water available for food production, Diouf noted.
According to FAO, in Africa alone 6.3 million hectares of degraded farmland have lost their fertility and water-holding capacity and need to be regenerated to meet the demand for food of a population set to more than double in the next 40 years.
In 1982, FAO adopted a World Soil Charter spelling out the basic principles and guidelines for sustainable soil management and soil protection to be followed by governments and international organizations.
"However, there have been long delays in applying the Charter in many countries and regions of the world. New efforts to implement it must be made as soon as possible," Diouf said.
Besides helping implement the provisions of the World Soil Charter, the Global Soil Partnership is intended to raise awareness and motivate action by decision-makers on the importance of soils for food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
The partnership is also aimed at providing favorable policy environment and technical solutions for soil protection and management and at helping mobilize resources and expertise for joint activities and programs.
The Global Soil Partnership will complement the 15-year-old Global Water Partnership initiated by the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank in 1996 to coordinate the development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systems.
Short-term interventions to provide food, water and basic needs such as seeds and fertilizer to kick-start agriculture is the usual response to food crises and extreme weather events such as in the Horn of Africa. However, longer-term and large-scale measures are needed in order to build greater resilience to degradation, drought and climate change and reduce human vulnerability to disasters.
The Horn of Africa crisis, with the ongoing famine in Somalia, is the most severe food security emergency in the world today. Besides issues of insecurity and governance, the crisis is caused to a large extent by inadequate soil and water management policies and practices.
The Rome meeting is expected to start work on an Action Plan on sustainable soil management that will develop synergies between partners and bring together work currently being done separately on soil survey, assessment and monitoring, soil productivity, soil carbon, soil biodiversity and ecology and soil and water conservation.