Global Soil Partnership

Increased soil contamination puts food safety and food security at risk

FAO marks World Soil day with call for urgent action to reduce release of pollutants into soils


5 December 2018, Rome - Urgent action is needed to address soil pollution and contain the multiple threats it poses to global food safety and food security, said FAO today marking  World Soil Day.

Thousands of chemicals, which are commercially produced on a large scale, plastic and electronic waste, non-treated wastewater can all become a source of soil pollution, paving the way for the pollutants to enter the food chain with serious consequences for the health and wellbeing of people and planet. 

"About 33 percent of all soils are degraded - and soils continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate," said Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo at the World Soil Day Ceremony at FAO's Rome headquarters. "Soil acts as a filter for contaminants. But when its buffering capacity is exceeded, contaminants can enter the environment and the food chain. This undermines food security by making crops risky and unsafe for consumption".

"Human activities are the main source of soil pollution. It is in our hands to adopt sustainable soil management practices," she added.

She called "for greater political support and significantly increased investment towards healthy soils". Maintaining healthy soils helps ensure safe and nutritious foods and is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.

Reuse, recycle and reduce

This year the World Soil Day theme is "Be the solution to soil pollution", and FAO offers a number of recommendations on how to reduce the soil contamination at the state, industrial and consumer level.

For example, growing cities are producing mounds of garbage that end up in landfills and enter the soil, up to 80 percent of which could be recycled.

As technological progress accelerates, electronic waste is considered as a new emerging threat to soils. Fifty million tons of e-waste are generated every year, making it one of the world's fastest growing pollution problems affecting our soils. FAO encourages people to donate or recycle old devices rather than throwing them away.  

While agrochemicals can help meet the world's growing demand for food, they leave a legacy of soil pollution and degraded agroecosystems. Nearly 60 percent of the top agricultural soils in 11 European countries contain residues of multiple persistent pesticides. FAO urges governments to promote the responsible and sustainable management of agrochemicals.

One third of the plastic produced globally ends up in our soils with plastic particles then entering the food chain and the environment.  Stronger environmental policies and regulations are needed to prevent the use of excessive packaging and chemicals by industry. However, each and every person can also contribute to solving the problem by simply carrying a reusable bottle and grocery bag, and buying products with reduced or recycled packaging.

Economic impact of soil loss in Malawi  - new study

FAO today also presented the key results of its first ever economic assessment of the impact of soil erosion and soil nutrient loss. The study which was conducted under a pilot project in Malawi funded by the UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment initiative, allows for a better understanding of the economic damages incurred by soil loss.

According to the study, a 25 percent increase in soil loss in Malawi would result in a reduction of GDP by 0.64 percent, which is the equivalent of about $40 million per year.

"Soil degradation has high economic costs: loss of soil health leads to reduced crop yields," Semedo said. "Preventing soil pollution must be a top priority worldwide", she concluded.

The Glinka World Soil Prize winner announced

During the World Soil Day ceremony, the Glinka World Soil Prize 2018 was awarded to Professor Rattan Lal, the President of the International Union of Soil Science (IUSS), for his outstanding contribution to sustainable soil management.

Professor Lal has been listed among the World's Most Influential Scientific Minds (2012) and among the top one percent of all researchers in agriculture. His scientific work has notably contributed to soil organic carbon restoration and improvement of soil structure but also played a major role in converting science into policy and decision-making.

The Glinka World Soil Prize, named after the pioneering Russian scientist Konstantin D. Glinka, was established by the Global Soil Partnership with the support of the Russian Federation in 2016 and honours individuals and organizations whose leadership and activities have contributed to the promotion of sustainable soil management and the protection of soil resources.

This year the Russian Federation has also approved the financial contribution of $2 million to support the activities of the Global Soil Partnership in its second phase (2018-2020).

Today, the first World Soil Day Award was also delivered to Practical Action Bangladesh for organizing the best World Soil Day celebration in 2017. The new FAO-established award is funded by the Kingdom of Thailand.  

View of open air deposit of discarded pesticide cans that are polluting the environment, soil and water nearby in Yeliman, Mali.

Soil is the source of about 95 percent of the food we eat. A close-up of fertile soil that has been prepared for planting chickpeas in Jordan.