Background: We're losing ground

Soil erosion through wind in a agricultural region near Depoplistkrao in Georgia

Public opinion seems to feel that protecting soils is much less important than, for instance, climate action. In fact, however, the loss of soil worldwide is dramatic. With it we are losing the very foundation of life – for humankind and all other creatures on earth. Especially in the arid zones of the planet, inadequate and excessive agricultural exploitation is leading to the degradation of vast stretches of land, which means that they are being damaged in a way that they can no longer or barely serve any ecological or economic purpose. This loss of soil has a tremendous effect on climate, biodiversity and worldwide food security.

In the past 25 years, soils on roughly one quarter of the world's land surface area have been degraded. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), an additional six million hectares of soil are lost each year – that is an area twice the size of Belgium. In arid zones, approximately 70 per cent of the land suitable for agriculture is at risk of desertification.

Video: What is land degradation neutrality?

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Soil sealing and inappropriate land use

Arid zones are at a particular risk of land degradation. However, a loss of fertile soils is affecting other regions of the earth as well, for instance due to more and more surfaces being sealed, with meadows and fields being lost to urban sprawl.

The lack of farmland means that forests are cut down and land that is unsuited to intensive agricultural use is pressed into service, and soon loses its fertility. The situation is further compounded by the fact that in many regions of the world vast areas are given over to monocultures in order to meet the demand of global markets for crops such as soybeans and maize. The focus on a very small number of crops and the inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides seriously disturb the ecological balance.

For people living in the world’s poorest countries, farming is generally the only way of earning a living; thus they keep trying to wrest a living from the soil. This creates the inescapable cycle of more and more soil being degraded, losing its ability to sustain people, and more new areas being opened up which can then no longer function as a carbon sink or habitat for people, animals and plants. According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), we will have reached the threshold where our demand exceeds what the planet can sustain by 2020 if land use continues to increase.

The result: Food insecurity, poverty and conflicts

A farmer looking across a dried-out river bed in the Mekele region in Northern Ethiopia

Loss of soil is not therefore just an ecological problem. It also aggravates social problems worldwide and hinders sustainable economic development. The economic loss is huge. The indirect costs, for instance in the form of migration to the towns and cities, disease and refugee flows, are significantly higher still.

Moreover, no other resource worldwide is distributed more unequally than land. Nearly everywhere, the disparities in land ownership are even greater than in income. Yet, the availability of land is a crucial factor that can help overcome hunger and poverty. Studies show that countries that have managed to distribute land more fairly can generate significantly higher economic growth.

Competition for productive land and water resources and the migration it causes, are often the root cause of political crises and conflicts. Thus efforts to protect soil contribute not only to protecting the climate and reducing poverty, but also to preventing conflicts.

Soil protection is a prerequisite for global development

Soil erosion on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka

In September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted at the UN summit in New York. Protecting soils will be an important prerequisite for implementing this Agenda, especially with regard to the following goals:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

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