Soils are taken for granted by the majority of the human population, but despite the image of being ‘just dirt’, soils are an extremely important component of the environment. Soils can be observed to have a complex structure, with unique biological, chemical and physical characteristics. They support plants, the primary producers, and supply them with moisture and nutrients, so providing all other terrestrial ecosystems with the basis of the food chain. With the exception of small contributions from aquatic sources, virtually all human food is produced either directly from crops grown in soils, or from animals which graze upon herbage itself rooted in the soil. Soils are under considerable threat from over-exploitation, pollution and misuse. Many decisions about land use are made without consideration of the underlying soils and for any serious proposals for sustainable use of the land, soil properties and functions should be recognized. Soils participate in the hydrological cycle, as well as the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. They intercept, absorb and inactivate pollutants, but also produce ‘greenhouse’ gases. Soils have long been recognized as a major natural body, worthy of investigation in their own right, and are now also being seen as a major participant in the global cycles of the environment.