Global plans of action endorsed to halt the escalating degradation of soils

Sustainable soil management essential for healthy soils and ecosystems

24 July 2014, Rome - Urgent action is required to improve the health of the world's limited soil resources and stop land degradation, so as to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water, energy and raw materials, government representatives and experts meeting at FAO warned today.

The Global Soil Partnership has endorsed a series of action plans at its plenary assembly in Rome today to safeguard soil resources which provide the basis for global agricultural production.

Recommendations include the implementation of strong regulations and corresponding investments by governments for the sustainable management of soils in ways that contribute to the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and poverty.

"Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production," said Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General. "Without soils we cannot sustain life on earth and where soil is lost it cannot be renewed on a human timeline. The current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.

"That's why the adoption of Global Plans of Action to sustainably use and protect soils is a major achievement. But we cannot stop here. We need commitments from countries and civil society to put the plan into reality. This requires political will and investments to save the precious soil resources our food production systems depend on," Semedo said.

Soils: easy to lose, hard to recover

The area of productive soils in the world is limited and faces increasing pressure from competing uses such as cropping, forestry and pastures/rangeland, urbanization, as well as energy production and mineral extraction, experts at the three-day meeting warned.

Soils represent at least a quarter of global biodiversity, and play a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to floods and drought. Crucially, plant and animal life depend on primary nutrient recycling through soil processes.

Demographic pressure

While some parts of Africa and South America offer scope for expansion in agriculture, according to FAO, global population which is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 - resulting in a 60 percent increase in the demand for food, feed and fibre - will put an even greater strain on land resources.

Some 33 percent of soil is moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, salinization, compaction and chemical pollution.

The resulting damage to soil affects livelihoods, ecosystem services, food security and human well-being.

Soils are also both affected by, and may contribute to climate change. For example, sustainable management of soil resources can impact positively on climate change through carbon sequestration and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and also by mitigating desertification processes.

Reversing the trend

The Global Soil Partnership, which brings together a broad range of government and non-government stakeholders, stresses the increasing need for governments to preserve soils and make the necessary investments. A Healthy Soils Facility was established with this aim.

The global soil community decided to establish global programmes for the promotion of sustainable soil management, soil conservation and soil restoration. Interventions should be based on the use of suitable technologies and sustainable and inclusive policies that directly involve local communities in actions to protect soils. In particular, there is a need to prioritize the safeguarding and management of organic carbon rich soils, notably peatlands and permafrost areas.

A global soil information system will be established to measure progress made and the status of soil resources. Considering that awareness-raising, education and extension on soils is much needed, a special programme for capacity development will also be established. In addition the first ever Status of World Soil Resources Report is set to be launched on 5 December 2015.

The UN has recognized 5 December as World Soil Day, and 2015 as the International Year of Soils.


• In Africa, approximately 30 percent of land is potentially suitable for agriculture. Yet, soil erosion and nutrient depletion are already affecting these soils. In Somalia, only 1,8 percent of its land is arable. Yet, annual soil loss through erosion in some areas can reach more than 140 tons/ha/year.

• In Latin America, it is estimated that the natural potential soils for intensive agriculture occupy only 25 percent of the continent. Still, soil degradation is a major challenge in the region.

• Since the 19th century, an estimated 60 per cent of carbon stored in soils and vegetation has been lost as a result of land use changes, such as clearing land for agriculture and cities.

• The first metre of Low Activity Clay soils (the majority of the upland soils in the humid and sub-humid tropics) contains approximately 185 Gigatonnes of organic carbon -  an amount which doubles that of organic carbon stored in the Amazonian vegetation. Through unsustainable soil management practices, this carbon could be released to the atmosphere, aggravating global warming linked to the burning of fossil fuels. A release of just 0.1 percent of the carbon now contained in Europe's soils would be equal to the annual emissions from 100 million cars

Photo: ©FAO/Thomas Hug
Terracing lands will help reduce soil erosion and run-off, thereby improving farmers’ chances of higher yields.