The Ground Beneath our Feet

Land and soil are taken for granted on a day to day basis. We fail to realise how much it contributes to every aspect of our life, with the main uses being:

  • Production of biomass through agriculture and forestry
  • Protection of the groundwater and the food chain against contamination, and maintaining biodiversity
  • Provision of the physical area for infrastructural development
  • Provision of an abundant source of raw materials (gravel, sand, clay etc)
  • Preservation of the gene reserve (the largest on the globe, 3-4 times larger than above ground)
  • Preservation of heritage by concealing and protecting archaeological and palaeontological remains

It also acts as the largest carbon sink in the world, which without, global warming may be significantly worse than it is now.

Due to only a small proportion of land actually being used for farming (approximately 12%), it should be in our best interests to keep it in such a way. This is not the case, however. Intensive farming has reduced appropriate arable land by a third, with 24 billion tonnes of soil becoming unusable each year, and is just one of the many examples of processes causing soil quality to become inadequate. Other examples of land/soil degradation include salinisation, soil sealing and compaction, contamination, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and organic matter within the soil.

The reasons for this soil degradation can be both anthropogenic and natural. Some anthropogenic causes of soil degradation include industrial contamination, the use of fertilizers in agriculture, deforestation, and over-cropping. There are also natural causes for the degradation of soil such as landslides, acid rain, and flooding. Although these are natural processes, they are heavily influenced by human activity.

A few ways that we can help minimise the long-term effects of these natural processes include reforestation, protection of mangroves (natural flooding barriers), and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the nature of these issues, in order to maintain our needed amount of usable land, we must use alternative methods to keep the soil fertile for agriculture. This only adds to the problem and creates a never-ending cycle of artificial intervention. Some of the solutions that have traditionally been used to reverse the degradation of soil include the traditional methods of soil flushing, planting flora that absorbs the excess pollutant (zinc) and soil relocation.

More importantly, solutions that tackle the contributing factors of soil degradation need to be developed. For example, policies that tax or undercut the use of artificial fertilizers, over-use of grazing land, making sure companies are held accountable for their impact on the land (industrial waste), and imposing laws to make sure countries do more to care for their agricultural land.

It’ll be interesting to discuss, at the WBCSD, how these policies can be put in place and what this means for our business and economic growth in the future.


By Francis Barton & Tara Murphy


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