February 1998

FAO of the UN


Tallinn, Estonia, 25 - 29 May 1998




1. Soil maps are the basic tools for the evaluation of the production potential of the land and therefore directly influence land-use allocation and policies.

2. Adequate soil information is needed for policy decisions, particularly in a context of increasing economic and social integration and the vast diversity of tools and methods developed in the past by Member Nations.

3. All countries in the European Region have undertaken soil investigations and mapping of their soil resources. The methodologies and scale of the surveys were adapted to the problems that were addressed. When very precise soil information was required, be it for fertilizer advice, irrigation scheme development or as a basis for valuation or land taxation, very detailed surveys (1:5 000 – 1:25 000 scale) were undertaken. Much smaller scales of 1:250 000 were used when only reconnaissance soil information was required for identifying possible sites for agricultural expansion.

4. Most soil maps contain information on important agronomic factors such as the soil depth exploitable by crop roots, the soil moisture storage capacity which is a vital parameter to assess infiltration rates for irrigation planning, and the soil's inherent nutrient content which has to be taken into account when giving fertilizer advice.

5. All these factors have to be known to determine the suitability of a given land unit for production of a specific crop and also to enable the most economic and rational advice on when to till and to what depth, what fertilizer to use and what amount, when to irrigate and how much water will be required. For soils with serious problems, such as the excess occurrence of certain chemical elements in the soils (e.g. aluminium, sodium or magnesium), or other impediments such as the occurrence of an impervious layer at shallow depth in the soil, or the presence of a fluctuating groundwater table close to the soil surface, more costly and specific soil management interventions are required. These need to be identified when agricultural development plans are prepared, to avoid cost overruns later. To quote an internal World Bank (WB) Evaluation Report "...the cause of sixty percent of WB assisted agricultural projects that fail can be traced to insufficient information about the physical resource base..." (IBRD, 1989).

6. More recently, with the ever-growing concern for environmental degradation, existing soil maps were re-examined in the light of the soil degradation risk and new surveys were undertaken to assess the land degradation status. Land degradation is a general term that covers a number of phenomena, such as absolute loss of topsoil, soil nutrient losses, chemical pollution and pollution with heavy metals from industry, physical degradation through compaction and sealing of the soil surface, etc. Evaluation of this degradation status and the causes often transcends national boundaries and calls for harmonisation of mapping and evaluation methodologies.

7. Soil is a natural resource, not renewable in the short-term, and very expensive to reclaim or improve once it is physically degraded or chemically depleted. There is wide-spread evidence that soil losses from degradation significantly undermine the productive capacity of the soil and may pose a threat to food security in some countries of the Region. The economic effect of land degradation is obviously very variable but has been estimated as resulting in a decrease in value of between 1% and 40% of the agricultural production.

8. In particular, poorly-managed high-input management practices cause environmental problems throughout the European Region. Excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, inadequate nutrient and animal waste containment and industrial development, result in pollution of the soil and water resources, causing not only health hazards, but also leading to a loss of biodiversity and contamination of surface waters. Chemicals used in agriculture, nitrates in particular, are a predominant threat for groundwater, while others such as phosphates and heavy metals are able to form stable compounds in the soil where they may act as chemical time-bombs. The inventory and monitoring of these factors should without doubt be a priority in the European Region.

9. The characteristics of soils may vary very rapidly over short distances and the inherent properties of soils, be it fertility level or resilience against degradation, have to be known in space and time in order to implement adapted soil management techniques and to proceed with a matching between the surveyed properties of the soil and the requirements of new and improved land-uses in order to decide on sustainable alternatives.

10. It should be underlined that although soil in itself is an important production factor in the agronomic and environmental sense, land evaluation has always to be seen in a larger context including climatic, land-use and socio-economic parameters.


11. Systematic soil surveys were started in most European countries in the 1950s against the background of an urgent need for increased agricultural production.

12. On the initiative of a number of European soil scientists, a meeting was organized in Gent, Belgium in 1952, with the purpose of harmonising methodologies and classification systems. As a result of this meeting, a request was submitted to the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to sponsor the harmonisation within the framework of the FAO European Working Party on Land Utilisation and Conservation. In response to this request, FAO established a Working Group on Soil Classification and Survey, later affiliated with the Sub-Commission on Land and Water Use of the European Commission.

13. This work resulted in a first draft of the soil map of Europe at a 1:2.5 million scale presented at the second meeting of the Working Group held in Oxford, United Kingdom in September 1959. From 1959 to 1964 several drafts of the map and text were presented and discussed at successive meetings of the Working Group and at the Seventh and Eighth International Congresses of Soil Science. The map and its explanatory text were published by FAO in 1966.

14. A further step towards a common European inventory was the preparation of the 1:5 million Soil Map of the World, jointly undertaken by FAO and UNESCO. The project was initiated in 1961 and publication started in 1971. The two map sheets covering Europe were issued in 1981. The FAO/UNESCO Soil Map of the World incorporated the European systems of soil classification into an internationally recognised legend that enhanced cooperation and enabled a harmonised overview of the soil characteristics, both at continental and global level (FAO, 1995).

15. The broad composition of the soil associations at scales 1:2.5 million and 1:5 million was considered as a basis for more detailed land resource management and planning. Conscious of its responsibilities with regard to the practical application of soil data, the Working Party on Soil Classification included the preparation at 1:1 million scale in its programme in 1965. This map was published as the EC Soil Map by the Directorate General (DG) of Agriculture in 1985, and was later digitised under the CORINE (Co-ordination of Information on the Environment) project.

16. In 1987, the European Commission launched a programme to Monitor Agriculture using Remote Sensing (MARS). This programme required an improved version of the CORINE database in order to provide soil parameters needed to model and forecast agricultural production in the EC. This task was initially undertaken by a soils information focal point, and later, in 1996, the European Soil Bureau (ESB) was established as a new body within the European Commission as part of the Agricultural Information Systems Unit (AIS) of the Space Applications Institute (SAI). Its role is to collect and harmonise soil information for policy formulation for the European Community.

17. More recently, and in response to a growing demand for more detailed soil information, ESB has launched investigations in the design and implementation of a future georeferenced soil database of Europe at 1:250 000 scale. This more detailed scale is of particular interest for smaller countries of the Region to allow more meaningful mapping of soil factors and for environmental applications.


18. FAO is preparing a soil and terrain database under a regional project (SOVEUR: Soil vulnerability to pollution in Central and Eastern Europe) at an equivalent scale of 1:2.5 million to serve as a base for mapping the vulnerability to soil pollution in fourteen countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the European part of the Russian Federation.

19. FAO has been closely associated with the preparation of soil maps in Europe through guidelines and methodology development. FAO has developed guidelines and methodologies on soil profile description (FAO, 1990), alone or with others, concerning for instance soil classification (FAO-UNESCO, 1974; FAO-UNESCO-ISRIC (International Soil Reference and Information Centre), 1988), the Framework for Land Evaluation (FAO, 1976), the guidelines for preparing soil and terrain databases (SOTER , UNEP/ISRIC/FAO/ISSS (International Society of Soil Science), 1993, FAO/ISRIC/CSIC, 1995) or for undertaking land-use planning (FAO/UNEP, 1996) and Agro-ecological zoning (FAO, 1996).

20. At national level, for instance, FAO has inter alia assisted Slovenia in land valuation and Lithuania in setting up a land information system.

21. In land degradation mapping, FAO was an active participant in and contributor of information to a global inventory undertaken by UNEP and ISRIC (Oldeman et al., 1991). FAO is also involved in an international programme of detailed degradation mapping of the coastal zone in the Mediterranean countries through its participation in the Mediterranean Action Plan.


22. In the European context, policy decisions, communications, trade and technology exchanges would need harmonised and compatible soil data information. The demand for this harmonised soil information is already high in the European Union and would eventually include and serve the rest of Europe and the Maghreb.

23. Harmonised land resource information throughout the Region would allow a much more rational transfer of agricultural technologies, management practices or knowledge of selected crop varieties and research results that could be transferred from one region to another, or between countries with similar physical land resources. Such information would prove to be a sound reference base to facilitate communication among those involved in planning, decision- making and implementation.

24. A good example in this respect is the traditional cooperation between the Nordic countries and the Baltic States in matters of research into crop-soil interactions.

25. The existence of harmonised soil data sets would also facilitate the task of law makers and enable policy makers in the environmental domain to set norms and standards for the whole Region. It would also allow the agricultural crop modelling and forecasting as developed under the MARS programme to be rapidly expanded to the whole Region. This in turn would assist agro-economists and policy makers throughout Europe. Other possible uses are linked with applications in early warning or climatic change models and scenarios, which would also require harmonised soil data sets.

26. Obstacles to harmonised soil data at the EU level are more related to priority setting in individual countries and to administrative copyright procedures. This may, however, have significant consequences on the development of programmes at regional and international level, as data would remain unexploited or cannot be used in other programmes, including the joint FAO/ESB undertaking of preparing a pan-European soil and terrain database.

27. Another concern related to the harmonisation of soil data sets and methods, is that soil laboratory procedures differ for historical reasons between Eastern Europe and the rest of the Region. This leads to difficulties in interpretation of results and could be tackled by more intensive collaboration in method comparison and correlation. There is a significant amount of soil information that is available in paper format and there is a dire necessity of transformation into digital format. Digitalisation of soil maps into a GIS would facilitate the exchange of information and make these data compatible with the rest of Europe. FAO and ESB are jointly working in the production of a georeferenced soil database that would also cover the European part of the States of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) for their national needs. However, to do so at the same scale of 1:1 million as for the EU Member States, will require considerable efforts and resources, but the potential applications and benefits to users of this soil information system would likewise be of great significance. Sound and harmonised soil information would allow an integrated approach to the sustainable use of land resources in the CIS countries. This would imply considerable improvement of land use planning in the Sub-region and thus constitutes a step forward in the creation of a fully integrated pan-European land resource management system.

28. Similarly, the system could be applied to the Maghreb countries and other countries bordering the Mediterranean area, which would likewise benefit from the similar harmonisation of soil data.

29. At the same time efforts should also be focused on upgrading the detail and scale of soil studies in selected pilot areas. This is particularly important for the smaller countries in the Region.


30. Harmonised soil data and soil maps are important sources of information which, when used wisely, allow better decision-making for sustainable agricultural production and enhance environmental protection.

31. There is a long history of cooperation between European institutions and organizations and FAO in matters related to soil resources from inventories to planning, conservation and management. FAO, ESB and other international institutes and research centres in the Region are already collaborating at technical level in the implementation of a project for soil data harmonisation on soil vulnerability to degradation and soil pollution, which when completed, will allow a systematic approach towards successfully facing land degradation problems in the Region.

32. Harmonised soil data for the whole of Europe would allow a common basis on which to base common policy decisions related to land-use, land management and environmental protection. FAO and ESB are natural partners in this undertaking with the support of national soil institutes and interested universities in the Region.


33. In order to make optimal use of and benefit from soil information in the region, the Conference may wish to recommend that :



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