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Why soils matters

- A european perspective


Olivier de Schutter

‘It is an extremely important time. 42% of land that is cultivated today is

degraded land; this is the result of different factors, depending on the region.



in many countries land is overused, particularly where land is becoming

too small to support the livelihoods of the people, and is divided up genera-

tion after generation. Farmers have too little soil to cultivate and they overuse

the land in some regions.



, unsound agricultural practices degrade the soil: spread of monocul-

tures that remove trees from farming - a particularly relevant topic when it

comes to agriculture practices in the EU.



, significant erosion of the soil. 50% of the planet’s top soil has been

removed in the past 50 years. In addition to erosion, there is also compaction

of soils, loss of soil structure, nutrient degradation, and an increase in soil

salinity, which should further increase with higher sea levels.

The consequences are important in terms of initiatives from the UN.

The most important of which is the

UN Convention to Combat Desertification

(UNCCD), adopted in 1992, together with

the Convention on biological biodiversity

(UNCBD) and the

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The UNCCD has now 196 state parties committed to preventing and reversing

desertification and soil degradation, and it should remain part of the discussions

to understand how these duties from countries can be better complied with.

The consequences of soil degradation are the following:

- Loss of land productivity is a problem for farmers who depend on the land, in

particular in developing countries where I have worked.

- Environmental consequences: degraded lands are less well-equipped to

retain water which can worsen flooding; soil erosion leads to sedimentation

in streams and rivers, clogging these water ways and causing decline in fish

stocks and other species.

- The third and most important consequence: the organic matter in the soil

holds carbon. The soil digests the plant which through photosynthesis has

been absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The more the soil is rich

in organic matter, the more it can function as a carbon sink. Conversely, as soils

lose organic matter, they release carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, worsen-

ing climate change. In fact, there was a study prepared by


t the request

of the French government, which concluded that, as 24% of Greenhouse Gas

(GHG) emissions come from agriculture and forestry, transforming soils into a

carbon sink could lead to a very significant reduction of GHG.


of the planet’s top soil

has been removed in the

past 50 years.