Soil pollution, its effects on our future and what we can do to reduce it
We tend to look skywards when talking about pollution, but this problem is not confined to our skies. The soil in which our fruit and vegetables grow is also suffering its consequences, the effects of which getting to us directly, for instance, through the aforementioned foodstuffs. The time has come to look after what lies under our feet!
The soil is the skin of the earth, a mantle full of scars, thousand-year-old wrinkles and more recent injuries caused both by man and nature itself. Some of these ulcers are incurable — such as the extinction of species —, whereas others jeopardise health and food security, all of which threaten the well-being of half the world's humanity, as warned by the Global Land Outlook (GLO2), Land Restoration for Recovery and Resilience, published in 2022 by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The report highlights that pollution is the biggest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, mainly soil pollution, along with exposure to chemicals and poor waste management.
What is soil pollution
This invisible affliction appears when the concentration of pollutants on the surface becomes so high that it harms land biodiversity and endangers health, particularly through food. Activities such as stock breeding and intensive farming use chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers that pollute the land, just as happens with heavy metals and other natural and man-made chemical substances.
Soil pollution is a global threat that is particularly serious in regions like Europe, Eurasia, Asia and North Africa, as indicated by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO also affirms that both intense and even moderate degradation is already affecting one third of the world's soil. Moreover, recovery is so slow that it would take 1,000 years to create a few centimetres layer of arable soil.
Causes and types of soil pollution
Phenomena such as erosion, loss of organic carbon, increased salt content, compacting, acidification and chemical pollution are the major causes of current soil degradation. Moreover, the FAO distinguishes between two types of soil pollution:
- Specific pollution: accounted for by particular causes, occurring in small areas the reasons for which can be easily identified. Land pollution such as this is normally found in cities, old factory sites, around roadways, illegal dumps and sewage treatment stations.
- Widespread pollution: covers extensive areas and has several causes the reasons for which are difficult to identify. Cases such as these involve the spreading of pollutants by air-ground-water systems and seriously affect human health and the environment.
Among the most common causes of soil contamination caused by human activity, the FAO highlights industry, mining, military activities, waste — which includes technological waste — and wastewater management, farming, stock breeding the building of urban and transport infrastructures.
Consequences of soil pollution
The toxic substances that are deposited on the earth's surface harm our health and well-being and affect food, water and air quality. The most important effects of soil pollution according to IPBES and the FAO are indicated below:
Damage to health
Soil pollutants enter our body through the food chain, causing illnesses to appear. Moreover, the spread of antibiotics in the environment increases the pathogens' resistance to these drugs.
Soil pollution agents jeopardise world food security by reducing the amount and quality of harvests.
From 2015 to 2050, 69 gigatonnes of CO2 will be emitted as a result of land use change and land degradation, a figure that represents 17% of current greenhouse gas emissions each year
Water and air pollution
Soil degradation affects the quality of air and water, particularly in developing countries.
Soil degradation and climate change will have driven between 50 and 700 million people to emigrate by 2050.
Soil contamination is one of the main causes that could trigger the sixth mass extinction event in history —wildlife populations fell by 69% between 1970 and 2018, according to WWF's Living Planet Report—.
The number of inhabitants in the most arid areas of the earth could account for 45 % of the world's population in 2050, while world wetland areas have decreased in size by 87 % over the last three centuries.
Global economic losses caused by soil degradation are expected to be more than half of the world's annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Solutions to reduce soil pollution
Soil degradation is a complex problem that requires governments, institutions, communities and individuals to take joint measures. The following are just some of the things we can do to improve its health:
- Eat sustainable foodstuffs, properly recycle batteries, produce homemade compost and dispose of drugs in the places authorised for this purpose.
- Encourage a more eco-friendly model for industry, farming and stock breeding, among other economic activities.
- Improve urban planning and transport planning and waste water treatment.
- Improve the management of mining waste, restore the landscape and conserve topsoil.
- Involve local communities and indigenous peoples in the design, implementation and assessment of sustainable land and soil management.