If we ask a European citizen to list the main issues of a hypothetical EU policy agenda, for sure we would not find the soil (1). Public opinion still does not recognize the soil as a natural resource that is over-exploited by human being, as it is for freshwater or forests, although for many years the scientific community is studying the way for safeguarding and broadcasting soil ecosystem services, i.e. the several humankind benefits provided by soil (2).
The soil sustains life, generating almost all of the available food and preserving more than 95% of the genetic variability of the Earth. The soil acts as a strategic regulator of the biogeochemical cycles of our planet (3), such as the carbon cycle, responsible of the well-known effect of Global Warming. Suffice it to recall that the carbon stocks within the soil profile are equal to three times the whole atmospheric carbon. As a consequence, the soil plays a key role to achieve the EU’s objectives in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, catching more than 20% of carbon dioxide emissions produced by humans.
Nevertheless, there is a lack of awareness of soil as a natural resource, conversely it is subordinated to the role of inert matter whose purpose is merely supporting crops or infrastructures. Emblematic is the lack of a clear terminology that should define the soil. For example, according to the Italian environmental legislation (Dlgs 152/06), the soil is roughly defined as “territory, soil, subsoil, settlements and infrastructures”. Therefore, the soil is not defined per se, but through elements that represent something other than soil.
In spite of the soil degradation is estimated at approximately 5 billion euro a year (4), several studies say that the lack of awareness on the economic and ecosystem benefits of the soil is the main reason that hinders a sustainable land use and planning. Since 2006 the European Commission adopted a Soil Thematic Strategy to protect soils across the EU, but it was never turned into a soil framework directive. In addition, the growing demand of soil protection as a collective good collides against the historical (and cultural) land management that is based on the concept of private property.
The majority of researchers agrees that spreading the knowledge about soil as a vulnerable natural resource and the time necessary to its natural formation and irreversible destruction by human beings is a key factor to make the soil “sexy” (5): a way to capture the attention of media, public opinion and, as a result, of policy makers. For example, very few people know that one centimeter of soil is created in a span of two hundred years or more and that the few tens of centimeters of a soil profile under a turf enclose millennia of history. If we trace back the history of humans, and at the same time we dig those centimeters of soil that were formed in the same timeframe, there would be enough to remove a clod of 3 cm to discover that the same ground may have been trampled by Columbus before discovering the Americas, while removing only 8 cm we would be treading a decisive battleground for the fall of the Roman Empire!
On the one hand people do not know the time required by soil for its formation, and on the other they do not understand its vulnerability. For example soil sealing, one of the main threats for soil conservation in Europe and particularly in Italy, irretrievably deletes fertile soil at a dizzying rate of about 8 square meters per second every year.
In the past soil degradation could have a marginal significance for people since soil availability was apparently unlimited. However, today the need to protect the soil can no longer be extended, considering that for over 30 years farmlands are still 1.5 billion hectares and are not increasing worldwide, while the per capita availability of fertile soil is reducing (6). This concept is even more important when one considers that soil is the only resource to support the entire food production. This soil peculiarity had a dramatic consequence during 2008, when a world food crisis led to a general increase in the prices of cereals up to 150%. Although it is not fully accepted yet the interpretation whereby the crisis was due to the growth of emerging countries, such as China and India, and increased production of biofuels, it was found that no one seemed to expect that food might become scarce. A strategic production system that is becoming weak and needs to be preserved from its basis, that is the soil.
Nevertheless, many initiatives aiming at increasing the soil awareness are growing in the last years in Europe. For example, since 2009 is on the European Network of Soil Awareness, financed by European Commission, whose goal is to create interaction among stakeholders that work on soil such as academics, public administrators, NGO representatives etc. The Joint Research Centre, institute for research financed by EU, works to raise awareness about the importance of soil for the development of Europe and finances projects and specific initiatives in schools and institutions. On the other hand, other national and supranational policies have the potential to safeguard the soil, although this is not the primary objective. The ecological network of protected areas called “Natura 2000” was created to preserve habitats and vulnerable species, while the Common Agricultural Policy is increasingly addressed to support “agri-environment” measures for a sustainable land management.
These steps are important and encouraging, but not sufficient, to convey to the public opinion the complexity and vulnerability of this limited natural resource. There is an urgent need to preserve the soil as it is essential to ensure life on Earth.
Nicola Dal Ferro (PhD) works at the Department of Agronomy, Food, Natural Resources, Animals and Environment (DAFNAE) of the University of Padova. His research activity focuses on soil protection and sustainable land use practices.
Suggested video: “Let’s talk about soil”. This animated film tells the reality of soil resources around the world, covering the issues of degradation, urbanization, land grabbing and overexploitation; the film offers options to make the way we manage our soils more sustainable.
1) European Commission, 2011, Attitudes of European Consumers Towards the Environment. Special Eurobarometer 365. TNS Opinion & Social, Brussels.
2) Dominati, E., Patterson, M., Mackay, A., 2010, A framework for classifying and quantifying the natural capital and ecosystem services of soils. Ecological Economics, 69:1858-1868.
3) Lal, R., 2004. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on climate change and food security. Science 304, 1623-1627.
4) Jones, A., Panagos, P., Barcelo, S. et al., 2012, The State of Soil in Europe. JRC reference reports, Report EUR 25186 EN.
5) Glover, A., 2013, There’s a lot of excitement in a handful of dirt – so why don’t we talk about it more? Soil Carbon Sequestration conference, Iceland, 26-29 Maggio.
6) Meadows, D.H., Meaows, D., Randers, J., 2006, I nuovi limiti dello sviluppo, Mondadori, 386 pp.