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Press Release 98/36






Tallinn, 26. May -- The quality of millions of hectares of agricultural land in Europe is being reduced every year because of continuous soil loss and degradation, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today in a statement released at the Organization's Regional Conference for Europe in Tallinn.

"Although Europe is generally endowed with relatively more fertile soils than Africa, Asia and Latin America, the region is facing important soil problems," FAO soils expert Freddy Nachtergaele said.

FAO estimates that nearly 220 million hectares of land in the European region are moderately or severely degraded, this equals an area four times the size of France. "The main factors contributing to land degradation in Europe are the destruction of forests, excessive use of fertilizers, manure and pesticides, inappropriate tillage practices, monoculture and excessive grazing pressure," Nachtergaele said. The costs of soil degradation and erosion in Europe are estimated at about ten percent of agricultural production value each year.

Soil erosion occurs mainly when land is exposed to wind and rain through loss of vegetative cover. "One problem in Europe, especially in the Mediterranean, is that soils are washed away on steep slopes, in Albania and Greece for example, where around 60 percent of land are potentially affected; in Bosnia-Herzegovina it is more than 50 percent," Nachtergaele said. "It is obvious that only a permanent ground cover of trees and grasses and proper soil conservation measures can help to avoid landslides and tragedies as recently occurred in southern Italy."

Flood risks are often dramatically increased due to a loss of vegetative cover and deforestation. "In recent years several countries in Europe have suffered from heavy flood damage which could have been avoided if advice on land use was properly followed," Nachtergaele said.

Another problem, particularly in more temperate regions in Europe, is that the natural acidity of many soils is made worse by excessive application of manure as well as the acid rain produced by heavy industries throughout the region. The poisonous sludge that hit the Donana national wetland park in southern Spain some weeks ago, is another example where uncontrolled industrial development has destroyed 3,600 hectares of farmland.

Soil degradation caused by chemical and industrial pollution, i.e. by heavy metals, is estimated to affect 20 million hectares, particularly in Eastern Europe as well as parts of Scandinavia. This may affect soil biodiversity, yields and human health, particularly when groundwater becomes polluted. "The clear decline in mineral fertilizer and pesticide use in many countries in Eastern Europe over the last five years, however, may have reduced the risks there."

Soil salinity and sodicity is damaging the drier areas of the region, in Hungary, for example, 25 percent of soils are affected. "Salinity may also occur if irrigation schemes are not well managed and not adequately combined with properly maintained drainage schemes", according to FAO.

A regional FAO project financed by the Netherlands is currently mapping soil and terrain vulnerability in Central nd Eastern Europe, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovak Republic and the Ukraine.

Ministers and senior government officials of more than 40 European countries discussed the harmonisation of soil data and soil maps. "Harmonised soil data for the whole of Europe would allow a common basis on which to base policy decisions related to land-use, land management, and environmental protection", according to FAO. A significant amount of soil information in Eastern Europe is available only on paper "and there is a dire necessity of transformation into digital format."




Related link: FAO Regional Conference for Europe.


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©FAO, 1998