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.

Plant-based meat substitute with best environmental performance

A burger with plant based meat substitute.

Meat substitute products such as vegetarian sausage, schnitzel or meatballs are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. A study entitled "Meat of the Future" by the German Environment Agency examines the effects which meat substitutes have on the environment and health and what role they could play in a future diet. read more


8th Global Nitrogen Conference

A tractor spreading fertilizer on a field

The 8th Global Nitrogen Conference of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI 2020) follows up on the previous nitrogen conferences that have been held since 1998. This year’s theme is “Nitrogen and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”. Most of the SDGs are closely related to the nitrogen cycle. read more


Nitrogen surplus from agriculture has been excessive for 20 years

Ein Traktor bringt Gülle auf einem Feld aus

The agriculture sector has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to reducing its nitrogen inputs, say the latest nitrogen soil surface budgets of the German Environment Agency (UBA) which are based on data up to 2017. The average nitrogen surplus of the nitrogen soil surface budget is 77 kg per hectare (kg/ha) and has remained virtually constant for more than 20 years. read more


Soil of the Year 2020: Intertidal Flat Soil

Bildmontage des Wattbodens mit einzelnen Bodenschichten im Untergrund

5 December is World Soil Day, an initiative by the United Nations to focus attention on the importance of natural resources. Germany has named a Soil of the Year every year since 2005. Intertidal flat soils are Soil of the Year 2020. read more


Quo vadis, agriculture?

Ein Acker mit Traktorspuren.

A new publication by the Agriculture Commission at the Federal Environment Agency (KLU) proposes a fundamental reorientation of the agriculture system in five main areas: nutrient surpluses, food system, international agricultural trade, rural development, and digitalisation. read more


Less use of pesticides in municipalities is possible

Löwenzahn und anderes Unkraut in Ritzen von Treppenstufen einer Steintreppe

Landscape planning and pest control are among the many tasks which municipalities are charged with in their mandate to protect citizens and maintain infrastructure. It often requires the use of plant protection agents and biocides. A specialist conference hosted by the UBA showed that alternative methods are already making it possible to do without chemicals that are harmful to the environment. read more


Sewage sludge disposal in Germany

Sewage sludge treatment, disposal and phosphorus recovery must be adapted to new statutory requirements

Heavy metals, residues of pharmaceutical drugs and plastic: just a few of the many pollutants contained in sewage sludge. Until recently most of the sludges were used as agricultural fertiliser. Nowadays more than half of it is used and combusted for energy purposes. A new UBA brochure has information on disposal practices and on the current status in sludge treatment and recycling. read more


The Umweltbundesamt

For our environment