The Anthropocene era is characterized by massive global changes, including climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, pollution, urban sprawl, food insecurity, poverty and widespread disease outbreaks. The challenge for society is to adapt to and mitigate these changes, or even restore systems (agri-food and natural ones). The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development sets out a transformative approach to achieve socio-economic development while conserving the environment.
The thin crust of the Earth’s surface, the soil, supports all terrestrial life. Soil is involved in the regulation and provision of many key ecosystem services essential to the environment and to human health and well-being. Soil is the foundation of the food system and the medium in which nearly all food-producing crops grow; about 95 per cent of the food we eat comes from the soil. After the oceans, soil is the largest active carbon store and is thus an important part of the climate system. Soils also store and filter water. One cubic metre of soil can store up to 600 litres of water, allowing crops to grow even during dry periods. Being absorbent, soil also acts as a buffer against flooding. Above and belowground biodiversity are vital to ensure healthy soils and the ecosystems upon which we depend. Soil biodiversity contributes to the cycling of nutrients and carbon, regulates the emergence of pests and diseases, and serves as a source of pharmaceuticals that contribute to boost our health. Soils also provide building materials, fuel and fibre. They are the basis for human infrastructure and preserve our cultural heritage.
However, global soils are under great pressure. The Status of the World’s Soil Resources report presented in 2015 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soil (ITPS) identified ten major threats to the world’s soils. Erosion, loss of soil organic carbon and biodiversity, pollution, acidification and sodification, salinization, nutrient imbalance, compaction, sealing and waterlogging are the main pressures on soil health worldwide and limit the capacity of soils to provide these key ecosystem services for human well-being.
Soil pollution may be invisible to human eyes, but it compromises soil health, the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Most contaminants originate from human activities and are released into the environment as a result of unsuitable production, consumption and disposal practices, such as unsustainable farming practices, environmentally unfriendly industrial processes and mining, as well as poor waste management and wars. Pollution knows no borders; contaminants move through soil, air and water and enter into agri-food systems, impacting the environment and human health. This process is continuously growing as it is spread by a growing economy.
Soil pollution has been internationally recognized as a major threat to soil health and its capacity to provide ecosystems services, including the production of safe and sufficient food. Soil pollution is a chemical degradation process that consumes fertile soils, with implications for global food security and human health. Soil pollution hinders the achievement of many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including achieving zero hunger, ending poverty, ensuring healthy lives and well-being, halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss, and making cities safe and resilient.
In April 2018, FAO and its Global Soil Partnership/Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, together with other partners including the World Health Organization, the Secretariat of the Rotterdam Convention and the United Nations Environmental Programme organized the Global Symposium on Soil Pollution to bring together science and policy to understand the status, causes, impacts and solutions to soil pollution. The document “Be the solution to soil pollution” is the outcome of the symposium, where a common way forward to address soil pollution was agreed upon. Today, we are committed to implementing the actions agreed in this plan.
The United Nations Environment Assembly, at its third session (UNEA3), addressed the global issue of pollution and made a global call for action. Soil pollution was recognized as one of the major challenges of our time. The outcome of the political debate was the endorsement of UNEA3 Resolution 3/6 Managing soil pollution to achieve sustainable development, which called on Member States to take action to address soil pollution (UNEP, 2017). Furthermore, the Assembly requested the Executive Director of UNEP, within available resources, to invite, by the fifth session of the Environment Assembly, within their respective mandates, relevant United Nations organizations, including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Global Soil Partnership and its Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification to prepare a report based on available scientific information and data on the extent and future trends of soil pollution, considering both point source contamination and diffuse pollution, and on the risks and impacts of soil pollution on health, the environment and food security, including land degradation and the burden of disease resulting from exposure to contaminated soil.
Today, we present the Global Status of Soil Pollution report as a response to this request. The report, coordinated by FAO’s Global Soil Partnership, its Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, and supported by UNEP, is the result of an inclusive process with scientists from all regions of the world to bring the science behind soil pollution. The report will make a valuable contribution to raising awareness of the threats posed by soil pollution and will highlight the importance of addressing this problem to solve other current global threats; it is a crosscutting topic at the heart of the alignment of several international policy frameworks, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and multilateral environmental agreements. Furthermore, preventing, addressing, and remediating soil pollution will be critical to the success of the recently declared UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), the upcoming Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and the One Health approach.
It is time to reconnect with our soils given that it is where food begins. Soil pollution jeopardizes our efforts to reach sustainable development for all. Soil pollution should no longer be a hidden reality. Let us all be a solution to soil pollution.
UNEP Executive Director