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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.

Land take: Make goals binding

Aerial view of a small town

An area of 66 hectares of new land is consumed every day in Germany, with severe negative effects on the environment. UBA recommends a fixed quota regime for land and a certificate trading system. read more

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Soil organic carbon as a relevant indicator for the SDGs?

An earthworm in its natural habitat.

Soil organic carbon (SOC) is associated with many critical soil-derived ecosystem services. But what happens if the SOC content is decreasing? A decline in SOC stock may indicate degradation or even loss of land and soil. Therefore, it is currently discussed whether the SOC stock might play an important role in the realisation of the global Sustainable Development Goals. read more

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Antibiotics: livestock industry and human medicine can pollute groundwater

 a lot of pills in different colours

Antibiotics used in livestock breeding and in human medicine can find their way into groundwater says a recent study by the German Environment Agency (UBA). Maria Krautzberger, President of UBA, commented: "Groundwater must stay clean. This is the reason why the German Environment Agency has issued a recommendation for a threshold for antibiotics in groundwater." read more

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The gardening season kicks off

compost heap in a garden

Whether it is greenery from the home garden or fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, some waste is just too valuable to become residual waste. The compost heap at home can turn kitchen and garden waste into valuable humus. The German Environment Agency (UBA) has updated its manual on composting with hints and advice on how to make good compost. read more

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Erosion

Photo of an extreme form of erosion.

When uncovered farmland is exposed to heavy rainfall or high wind, soil particles are set in motion, and can be transported downhill or across open space over long distances. This results in a loss of fertile soil that is essential for life itself. And because farming is becoming ever more intensive and monoculture oriented, serious long term problems can result. read more

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Event to mark the end of the International Year of Soils 2015

desiccated soil

An event to mark the end of the International Year of Soils 2015 was hosted in Berlin by the German Environment and Development ministries jointly with the German Environment Agency and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. Under the heading “Soil – A source of life”, experts and policymakers discussed old and new soil protection tasks and challenges. read more

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The Umweltbundesamt

For our environment