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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.

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

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Ecological impact of farming

Tractor with tow tube

Germany’s farming sector uses the largest amount of land, but is at the same a lynchpin of our economy – one that provides a reliable food supply and produces sustainable raw materials. The farming sector also plays a key role when it comes to preservation and development of the man-made environment. But increasingly intensive farming brings with it a host of eco-unfriendly effects. read more

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UBA-Paper: The need for soil protection legislation at EU level

Golden paragraph mark surrounded by grey and white paragraph sign

The Position paper begins by discussing options on how to further develop EU soil protection law. Compared to the status-quo, strengthening the existing soil protection legislation at EU level would preserve transboundary ecosystem services of soils and also help to effectively implement the ‘land degradation neutrality’ objective. read more

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Minister Schulze presents plan for glyphosate phase-out

kahle Ackerfurchen bis zum Horizont

The Federal Ministry for Environment has presented a plan for the gradual phase-out of the use of the broadband herbicide glyphosate. The Use of Pesticides Ordinance will be amended for this purpose. The German Environment Agency as competent body for the authorisation procedure seeks to make the authorisation of products which harm biodiversity contingent upon certain conditions of their use. read more

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EU Commission proposes regulation for the reuse of water

irrigation on a field

The reuse of treated waste water can help to reduce water shortages. Reused water can contain pathogens and harmful substances, however. On 28 May 2018, the EU Commission proposed a regulation, on minimum requirements concerning the reuse of water. It aims to protect health and the environment. The UBA considers there to be a need for improvement. read more

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Environment and agriculture – Overview for Germany

Ein Feld mit Gräsern und Blüten

More than half of Germany's surface area is used for agriculture. Agriculture thus is the largest land user in Germany and a significant contributor to environmental stress. On the other hand, agriculture is also affected, for example, by the effects of climate change. In the flyer "Environment and agriculture 2018" UBA presents key facts about agriculture and environment. read more

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Organic farming

Close-up of an organically grown apple

Organic products taste good, and make a positive contribution to human health and environmental protection. Organic farming is a highly resource-conserving and environmentally-friendly activity that is oriented towards the principle of sustainability. It also aims to keep animals in a manner conducive to their welfare. read more

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The Umweltbundesamt

For our environment