Soil degradation: on shaky grounds

Recently, we read a very interesting essay by Loris on land issues within sustainable development. I will now discuss a very different issue regarding land: the problem of land and soil degradation.

During my bachelor  in environmental science I was sometimes confronted with soil problems through a course or a project  by someone else. It never really sparked my interest. Soil is boring.
What could possibly be more dull than some farmers digging in the dirt, throwing manure and other fertilisers around while discussing ploughing techniques and doing chemical tests on one cubic centimetre of soil? I decided to focus on beautiful landscapes, forests and sustainable urban fringes.
Soil is not sexy. Soil is filthy. We want it to be covered by vegetation, leaves and crops. Soil is best tucked away. Out of sight, out of mind.

But that should not be the case. Not for soil. It should be at the forefront of our minds, whether it is covered or not.
Soil degradation is a massive problem all around the globe. At this moment, we are losing land at an unprecedented rate. Around 33.000 hectares of arable land is lost  per day. This rate of land loss is thirty times as fast as only 50 years ago (UNCCD, 2016). About the size of Nicaragua (four times the Netherlands) is lost on a yearly basis in arable land. This is a mindboggling large amount of land for a world where everybody is concerned  about how we are going to feed the future world population. What is even more worrying is that this land degradation is happening on the largest scale in Africa, where people are the most vulnerable and where the world population will grow the most.
You should also get the itchy feeling of discomfort when realising that after oceans soils are the world’s largest carbon sink. If that has not convinced you enough of the importance of soil, think of the regulating function it has for biological and chemical cycles that have life sustaining roles.

Do we have a problem? Yes. Is it substantial? Very much so.
If we continue like this, there will be less land grabbing, the problem that Loris works on, because there will not be any land worthwhile to grab anymore.
What is causing this decline? A lot of the soil and land degradation is caused by human accelerated erosion. Erosion itself is a natural process and has its benefits. However, as with climate change, we  are accelerating the process too much. Unsustainable farm practices,  because of poor equipment and technology or too intensive agriculture, deplete the ground of its organic soil material, minerals and structure. People fail to understand that soils are very much living organisms. A handful of soil, may contain more than 10 billion micro-organisms. It is absolutely packed with fungi, worms, insects and of course plant roots.
Soil depletion and degradation occurs much quicker than one would expect. When you start seeing it, you are well too late. It can take decades for degraded soil to recover, even with support from human actions. Farmers, whose lives depend on the production from their land, simply don’t have that much time. So they move to other areas, leaving a trail of depleted soils behind where wind and water can deliver the final blow.

Sustainable Development Diplomacy (SDD) can help by actively bringing soil issues into the debate on sustainable development. It is already anchored in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15: Life on Land. This is an absolutely crucial goal because of its linkages/ties to so many other goals. Among them are SDG2 (Zero hunger), SDG6 (Clean water and sanitation: reservoirs in the world are filling up faster with sediment coming from accelerated erosion than new reservoirs are being constructed in the world meaning that the net capacity is dropping), SDG13 (climate action) and more.

We live on and from our soils. Everybody has a stake in  their wellbeing. This also makes it a very challenging topic due the number of stakeholders. It is the task of SDD diplomats to move and motivate coalitions to improve land practices without comprising the ability of the poorest to fend for themselves, and to speed up global soil restoration efforts.

Without that, we will have no ground to stand on.

UNCCD, 2016 (

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