Soils are the foundation for vegetation

Healthy soils are crucial for ensuring the continued growth of natural and managed vegetation, providing feed, fibre, fuel, medicinal products and other ecosystem services such as climate regulation and oxygen production

Soils and vegetation have a reciprocal relationship. Fertile soil encourages plant growth by providing plants with nutrients, acting as a water holding tank, and serving as the substrate to which plants anchor their roots. In return, vegetation, tree cover and forests prevent soil degradation and desertification by stabilizing the soil, maintaining water and nutrient cycling, and reducing water and wind erosion. As global economic growth and demographic shifts increase the demand for vegetation, animal feed and vegetation by-products such as wood, soils are put under tremendous pressure and their risk of degradation increases greatly. Managing vegetation sustainably—whether in forests, pastures or grasslands—will boost its benefits, including timber, fodder and food, in a way meets society’s needs while conserving and maintaining the soil for the benefit of present and future generations. The sustainable use of goods and services from vegetation and the development of agroforestry systems and crop-livestock systems also have the potential to contribute to poverty reduction, making the rural poor less vulnerable to the impacts of land degradation and desertification.

Key challenges

Soil degradation is in many cases the direct result of poor soil management. The consequent decline in vegetation and its products such as feed, fibre, fuel and medicinal products has an adverse effect on soil productivity, human and livestock health, and economic activities. Conversely, vegetation cover, particularly dense and healthy vegetation, protects soil from erosion agents such as wind and water and can improve its productivity. A large portion of the population depends on vegetation for their livelihoods: about 80 percent of people in the developing world use non-wood forest products for health and nutritional needs and for income. Furthermore, an estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide are dependent on wood fuel, including charcoal, for cooking and heating. The livestock sector is by far the single largest user of land by humans. Grazing occupies 26 percent of the earth's terrestrial surface, while feed crop production requires about a third of all arable land. Expansion of grazing land for livestock is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the remainder. About 70 percent of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly due to poor grazing practices. Sustainable management of pastures, forests and other vegetated land is therefore essential for preserving soils and consequently supporting rural livelihoods, maintaining livestock production, promoting the growth of vegetation and ensuring current and future use of raw materials.

FAO in action

FAO has implemented a number of projects related to sustainable production and better soil management. In Burkina Faso, FAO assisted groups of farmers in five farming communities in the moist savannah zone to enhance their crop-livestock systems through conservation agriculture practices, including crop diversification, using an innovative farmer discovery process, to bring about agricultural intensification and improvement in livelihoods. In Central African countries, FAO is working to improve food security in the sub-region by promoting the use and regulation of Non-Wood Forest Products (NWFP). While, in Asia and the Pacific, FAO is combating deforestation and degradation by promoting Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR), a process of regenerating degraded grassland and shrub vegetation by protecting and nurturing mother trees and their wildlings.


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