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Soil | Agriculture

The soil is one of the most important bases of subsistence and a resource that is renewable to only a limited degree. Soil performs many vital functions. Soil fertility is a make or break factor for agriculture. But the impact of soil and agriculture on each other is not merely reciprocal: water, air, climate and biodiversity protection are also particularly important for these two elements.

Soil develops extremely slowly as the result of a millennial interplay between physical, chemical and biological processes. Climatic factors, soil organism mechanisms, and human use are the driving forces behind the gradual and extremely slow process whereby rock is transformed into soil: it takes between 100 and 300 years for one centimeter of fertile soil to develop.

Soil performs a whole host of functions. It forms the basis for the livelihood and habitats of humans, animals, plants and soil organisms. Soil is also the main component of terrestrial ecosystems and complex water and nutrient cycles. Soil filters and converts nutrients and other chemical substances, and in so doing in so doing protects groundwater resources, provides plants with nutrients, and affects the climate. In the soil, we can discern the history of nature and civilization. Residential and recreational areas, as well as industrial sites and infrastructure elements, are sited on open land and its attendant soil. What’s more, soil is the primary production factor of the forestry and agricultural sectors; and fertile soil forms the basis for our entire food chain.

If soil is indispensable for life on earth, careless use of this resource and underestimating its importance is an alarming development; for soils worldwide are under pressure. Substance loads and other pressures affect and impinge upon soil functions. Substance loads include atmospheric and agricultural nutrients and pollutants, as well as local contamination and pollution at abandoned sites. Substance loads can contribute to the presence of excessive soil nutrients and to soil and ecosystem acidification. Completely paving over open stretches of land results in the sealing and destruction of soil. Apart from this direct use of land and soil, non-substance loads also include wind and water erosion and soil compaction – all of which are primarily attributable to intensive farming. This constellation of pressures translates into a loss of soil fertility, and has a deleterious effect on soil functions as a whole. The rising temperatures and changes in precipitation associated with climate change also affect the soil and can potentially increase the risk for soils at innumerable sites. Agriculture plays two distinct roles in this regard. First, it is the largest land use factor in Germany and worldwide. Around half of Germany’s surface area is used for agricultural purposes; the figure worldwide is 38 percent. Hence the agricultural sector has a major role to play when it comes to protecting our soil, water, and air, as well as flora and fauna.

The state of agriculture is determined by the presence of intact environmental conditions. But, somewhat paradoxically, as agricultural activities often also cause environmental pollution, agriculture can be regarded as both a victim and perpetrator of pollution. One of the key management instruments in this domain is the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which sets down strategies for dealing with the environmental impact of farming. Hence green agriculture is indispensable, for it is the key to ensuring that future generations will have a stable basis for food production.

Status of nutrient bookkeeping in the Baltic Sea countries

Tractor with tow tube

The Baltic Sea, a valuable and central part of our natural heritage, is under threat from nutrient inputs from agriculture. A study funded by the German Environment Agency has examined the current state of play in the introduction of nutrient accounting as a prerequisite to good agricultural practice. read more


How to assess land and soil degradation on global level?

Water erosion on landfield

In September 2015 the United Nations agreed upon the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They contain targets dealing with soil quality, restoration of degraded soil and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world. Yet, what options actually exist to estimate soil and land degradation on global level? This has now been examined by a new report. read more


Soil protection at international level

desiccated soil

Whilst global demand for food and renewable raw materials is rising, the very basis for producing these – healthy, fertile soil – is under threat. It is estimated that 1.5 billion people are already affected by the consequences of this development. A coordinated global approach to protecting the vital resource ‘soil’ is therefore urgently necessary. read more


Resource-efficient land use

stilisierte Erdkugel, auf der Landschaften und Städte überhöht dargestellt sind

The aim of the research project “Resource-efficient land use – Towards a Global Sustainable Land Use Standard” was to spark a debate on the development of a standard for global sustainable land use, launch the requisite scientific process and explore and identify options for implementing a global sustainable land use. read more


Global soil protection – What law protects effectively?

asphaltic street and paved footway, in the background new houses

Fertile soils are essential for life. Their preservation is set to become one of the United Nations’ global sustainability goals, under the heading “land degradation neutral world”. A legal study commissioned by UBA looked into how this goal could be implemented at international level. read more


The Umweltbundesamt

For our environment