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Three square kilometres of soil destroyed every day in Europe

28. September 2017 - 10:37
A person holding a handful of soil.
Photo: StockSnap /

The global population growth, an increasing demand for food, and the competition for land-use are all putting soils under immense pressure. We love to talk about the protection of the environment, animals, or trees but we usually don’t think about soils in the same way.

However, soils are one of the most important natural resources on the planet and their ecological importance has been greatly underestimated, writes Madli Karjatse, Chief Specialist of the Agri-Environment Bureau of the Ministry of Rural Affairs of Estonia.

The existence and well-being of soils, together with water, air, and sunshine, is vital for the functioning of the ecosystem and the continuation of life. However, soil resource is limited. Similarly to oil, oil shale, and several other natural resources, soil is also a non-renewable resource.

It is estimated that each year, soils equivalent to the size of Berlin are destroyed in the EU and three square kilometres of soil is destroyed every day . Urbanisation and road construction has caused nearly 200 000 km2 of soil or roughly the area of Great Britain to lose its function permanently. Deforestation and the deterioration of soil has caused an economic damage of around 1.5–3.4 trillion euros per year. This responds to 3.4-7.5% of the world’s GDP.

Most of the world’s soil supplies are either in satisfactory, bad, or extremely bad condition and, in most cases, the situation is becoming worse. This was also noted in the first complete report on soils by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations two years ago during the International Year of Soils.

Soil nurtures and regulates climate

Plants need soil to grow and fertile soils are the basis for agricultural production and with that, they are also the foundation for the nutrition of mankind. Soils are also one of the biggest biodiversity reservoirs with approximately a third of the world’s flora and fauna living there! The microorganisms living in soils are, for example, necessary in the production of medications – almost all antibiotics come from soils.

Soils also have an important part in regulating climate change, floods, landslides, and droughts. Excess amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is considered a direct cause of climate change but when we take into account soil’s tendency to store carbon, we can see that it has a vital role to play in regulating the effects of climate change and also in reducing the effects of fossil fuels. Soils are the second biggest collectors of carbon on our planet, right after oceans: 75% of carbon stored on land is in soils. Soils regulate and store carbon as organic substance, which means that all changes in land-use directly affect the general balance of greenhouse gases.

Soils are the biggest filters and collectors of water, thereby controlling the quality of fresh water supplies. Many people don’t know that we get pure water because of soils. When contaminated rainwater pours down over the ocean, the toxins in the water will also directly end up in the ocean. However, water that has gone through the ground and soil is purified in the natural filtration process of the soil and is a lot cleaner either for human consumption or for flowing into the ocean.

Deterioration of soils has a global impact

The indicators for soil deterioration include the decrease of biodiversity, organic matter or nutrients in the soil, soil acidification or salination, soil compaction or contamination, and soil erosion. In southern latitudes, loss of organic matter in soils is caused by intensive agriculture and use of strong chemicals. In semi-arid areas, desertification is a big problem for soils.

There are vast areas that have been contaminated because of industrial pollution and which, in many cases, cannot be reversed quickly as it is economically extremely expensive. Soil erosion causes the loss of 25 to 40 billion tons of soil every year. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, the world will lose 1.5 million square kilometres of usable land by the year 2050. This is the land area of Germany, France and Spain combined.

Globally, the main causes for soil degradation are: deforestation, population growth, urbanisation, industrial pollution and waste, climate change (soil degradation causes climate change and that in turn causes more degradation of soils), unsustainable land-use practices, etc.

Destruction of soils is also caused by urbanisation and road construction. Often enough, new buildings and roads are built on lands with high-fertility soils, as over the centuries, people have settled near areas with good and fertile soils.

The degradation of soils, even if only at a local level, will have a global effect. Floods, erosion, landslides, greenhouse gas emissions, decrease in biodiversity, hunger, droughts and also poverty and migration are all global phenomena that are closely related to the loss or degradation of soils.

Protection of soils is not adequate enough

What can we do to preserve and improve the condition of our soils? We can start by acknowledging the importance of the issue and working on using soils more sustainably. Just as peoples’ health needs to be taken care of and treated when necessary, so should we preserve and improve the health of soils.

On the axis of land-air-water, the regulations on soils are the most deficient in the European Union (EU). The creation of a common soil protection directive in the EU has not been successful because of the opposition of some Member States. Currently, only a few EU Member States have national soil protection laws. In Estonia, we have promoted the sustainable use of agricultural soils through various requirements and support schemes, for example with regulations on crop rotation and the use of glyphosates, the requirement to keep the land under a green cover during winter, using suitable agro-techniques to hinder erosion, keeping peatlands and areas with eroded soils as grasslands, etc. A regulation to protect valuable agricultural lands and soils from falling out of use (urbanisation, road construction) has been initiated.

Estonia has decided to draw attention to the sustainable use of soils by holding a high-level conference as part of its Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The conference “Soil for sustainable food production and ecosystem services” will be held on 4-6 October at the Tallinn Creative Hub (Kultuurikatel).

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