Soil erosion: A threat to our health, food and future

We depend on the land and soil for all our basic needs; however, due to soil degradation, there is a real risk that future generations’ food supplies may be gravely limited


Soil degradation is currently the largest threat to food security worldwide and with every bit of soil lost, future generations lose hope for a healthier tomorrow.

The world’s agriculture and food system is at risk due to soil degradation accelerated by climate change. More than half of the soil worldwide is now classified as degraded, with approximately 1.5 billion people living on degraded land. This damage, largely the result of industrial farming practices, over-grazing and global warming, generates an enormous hidden cost for society.

Although new technological advances allow mankind to grow food in laboratories, we still depend on the soil for more than 90% of the world’s agriculture, and billions of people’s livelihoods depend on it.

Speaking on the occasion of World Soil Day, celebrated annually on Dec. 5, Hikmet Öztürk, deputy general manager of the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA), stressed that while the amount of agricultural land per capita continues to fall due to the rising population, soil on 33% of the land has degraded and 12 million hectares (29.65 million acres) of agricultural land is destroyed each year.

“Soil degradation causes a drop in ecosystem services, reduces soil quality and also leads to a loss of biodiversity, which directly affects human welfare,” he said.

Erosion, salinization, pollution, loss of organic substance, excessive chemical and pesticide use, deforestation, urbanization and “brutal” mining activities are the reasons for soil degradation, he noted.

Mentioning the devastating effects of deforestation on soil, Öztürk said 45% of the world’s forest presence has been turned into agricultural land, and if the degraded area is on a slope, it becomes useless due to erosion and is abandoned.

Climate effects

Touching on climate-related soil issues, he said climate change, which occurs due to a rise in greenhouse gases and is accelerated by the use of fossil fuels, is one of the main factors affecting soil degradation.

“More floods, droughts and rising sea levels due to global warming accelerate soil degradation,” he said.

Noting that soil degradation also causes climate change as well as being affected by it, he said 35% of the rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of land destruction that started in 1850. Unsustainable agricultural activities and permafrost thawing have led emissions of methane gas to accumulate in the atmosphere that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, he said.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.