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Land and soils

  • Land and soils constitute the foundation for sustainable agricultural development, essential ecosystem functions and food security. They are key to sustaining life on Earth.
  • Soil is non-renewable - its loss is not recoverable within a human lifespan - yet it is the most overlooked natural resource.
  • Soil degradation is a real and escalating threat caused by unsustainable land uses and management practices, and climate extremes that result from various social, economic and governance drivers.
  • The current rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs. This trend can be reversed through a concerted effort towards its sustainable management.
  • As soils are at risk, this compromises sustainable agriculture, food security and the provision of ecosystem services. 


Soil is a core component of land resources and the foundation of agricultural development and ecological sustainability. It is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production and for many critical ecological services. Soil is a complex, dynamic living system and its suitability varies from place to place. The area of productive soil is limited and is under increasing pressure of intensification and competing uses for cropping, forestry and pasture/rangeland, and to satisfy demands of the growing population for food and energy production, raw materials extraction, and so forth.

  • Soil is a reservoir for at least a quarter of global biodiversity and therefore requires the same attention as above ground biodiversity;
  • Functional soils play a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to flood and drought;
  • Plant and animal life depend on primary nutrient cycling through soil processes. Efficient soils provide the largest store of terrestrial carbon; their preservation may contribute to climate change mitigation;
  • Soils also serve as a platform and source for construction and raw material. Soils have a role in achieving integrated production systems and helping to address the food, water, and energy nexus;
  • Soils are both affected by, and may contribute to, climate change. Sustainable management of soil resources contributes effectively to mitigation of (i) climate change through carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and (ii) desertification processes;
  • Soils need to be recognized and valued not only for their productive capacities but also for their contribution to the maintenance of key ecosystem services.

Key challenges

Sustainable management of the world’s agricultural soils and sustainable production intensification have become an imperative for global food security. Current demographic trends and projected growth in global population (to exceed 9 billion by 2050) are estimated to result in a 60 percent increase in demand for food, feed and fibre by 2050. There is little scope for expansion in the agricultural area, except in some parts of Africa and South America. Much of the additional available land is not suitable for agriculture, and the ecological, social and economic costs of bringing it into production will be very high. In addition, 25 percent of land is highly degraded and a further 44 percent is slightly or moderately degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction and chemical pollution of soils.

These dual objectives cannot be attained satisfactorily unless soils are placed at the very top of the new development agenda. There are well recognized links between soils and poverty, which are often associated with socio-economic and governance issues.

Land degradation and soil depletion represent a real and escalating global threat and involves a number of processes, including: erosion by wind, water and tillage, compaction, sealing, nutrient imbalance, loss of soil organic matter, acidification, salinization and pollution. These processes are caused by unsustainable land management practices that result from various social, economic and governance drivers. The resulting damage to soil affects livelihoods, ecosystem functions, food security and human well-being. The current rate of land and soil degradation will certainly compromise the capacity of future generations to meet their basic needs, unless we adopt a new approach for its sustainable management.

What needs to be done?

The sustainable use and management of land and soils is linked to many different areas of sustainable development. There is an urgent need to stop land degradation and soil nutrient depletion and establish frameworks for sustainable land and soil management systems.

Promoting the sustainable management of land and soils can contribute to healthy soils and thus to the effort of eradicating hunger and food insecurity and to stable ecosystems.

The Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils recommends the following actions:

  • Suitable technologies, sustainable and inclusive politics, effective extension programmes and sound education systems need to be provided so that more is produced with less;
  • Soil protection and reclamation and sustainable land management projects should be included in the current emerging markets that provide an economic value to those actions that produce ecosystem services. Governments have to recognize the increasing need to preserve soils and make corresponding investments;
  • Promote management practices for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and resilience to changing weather patterns and extremes. Protection and management of organic carbon rich soils, notably peatlands and permafrost areas are of particular concern;
  • Strong regulations and effective control by governments should be put in place in order to limit the accumulation of contaminants beyond established thresholds for human health and wellbeing and eventually to remediate contaminated soils;
  • Increase the area under sustainable soil management practices, enhance the restoration of degraded soils, and promote “sustainable production intensification” through adapted biological resources, increasing soil fertility, water use efficiency, ensuring sustainable use of inputs and recycling of agricultural by-products;
  • Support the development of national soil information systems to assist decision-making on sustainable land and natural resources uses; and increase investment in sustainable soil management through overcoming obstacles including tenure security and user rights, access to knowledge and financial services;
  • Strengthen the implementation of capacity development and education programmes on sustainable soil management.



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