The Lost Soils
Land degradation threatens one quarter of Earth’s soils. A global initiative wants to raise awareness.
The exhibition “Soil. Sustains Life.” shows how humans depend on soil, a non-renewable resource, and why we have to manage it sustainably.
“Soil is a resource, a living, breathing entity that, if treated properly, will maintain itself. It's our lifeline for survival.” With these words, Canadian author Marjorie Harris sums up the importance of soil. Without healthy soil, we would have no plants, hardly any clean water, and no food. Without healthy soil we could not live. Yet we continue to destroy thousands of hectares of fertile land every day through unsustainable farming, our consumption habits, and by paving it over. How does this impact life on earth? And how can we meet our needs without further destroying our soils? On behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) has put together an exhibition to answer these and many more questions: “Soil. Sustains Life.” The exhibit is in honour of the International Year of Soils and is currently being shown at a range of different events both in Germany and abroad.
“…we are losing more and more of the soil we need directly or indirectly to produce all our food...” (Ute Sonntag)
“Soil is not an attractive topic. When people think of soil, they associate it with dirt or children who get filthy playing in the dirt.” Ute Sonntag, advisor to the GIZ’s Sector Project to Combat Desertification, sees this as one of the reasons the public is not aware of the importance of soil. Another is typical of Western societies in particular: “None of us thinks at all about where our food comes from. We buy it in the supermarket, and simply import whatever doesn’t grow here. So we don’t notice that we are losing more and more of the soil we need directly or indirectly to produce all our food,” Sonntag says.
Arable land is also increasingly a source of conflict.
She is right of course: Very few of us ever think about the fact that fertile soil is not an unlimited resource, or that each of us really only has the right to a limited amount of arable soil. If land were distributed equitably, every person on earth would have access to just 0.2 hectares. On average though, an EU citizen uses 1.3 hectares of land – around six times as much as someone who lives in Bangladesh. According to Sonntag, most people there and in other developing nations have a very different relationship to this essential resource. They immediately feel the effects of soil degradation, since they grow their own food and live directly from the soil. A shortage of productive fields leads to a shortage of food, resulting hunger and poverty in these countries. Arable land is also increasingly a source of conflict.
“We want to raise awareness without trying to indoctrinate anyone. People need to know what is under their own two feet and what is in the soil – so much more than just dirt,” Sonntag explains. The exhibition opens with a portrayal of soil and its value as a natural resource, before moving on to the needs of human beings and how these all depend on soil. One thing is very clear: The way we treat soil today is destroying it bit by precious bit until the point when subsequent generations will no longer be able to live off it. But this worst-case scenario is not inevitable – the exhibition ends with alternatives to show how humans could meet their needs without destroying the soil we depend on for life itself.
The surface of the earth is around 51 billion hectares. Not even 30 percent is land, and of this land a very small percentage is arable.
But we should start at the beginning: What makes soil so important? Why is it such an essential resource, even though it seems to be everywhere? Not all soils are equal, and the amount of fertile soil available is really very limited. This is the essential message of the first part of the exhibit.
The surface of the earth is around 51 billion hectares. Not even 30 percent is land, and of this land a very small percentage is arable. This productive soil is very unequally distributed. European soil is relatively fertile, but there is comparatively little soil suited for long-term agricultural use in tropical regions in particular. Local people feel this quite acutely, especially poor populations who often practice subsistence farming. The area available per farm is also considerably lower: European farmers who grow crops for the domestic and export markets use an average of around 27 hectares of land; farmers in North America have an astonishing 121 hectares at their disposal. Smallholder farmers in developing countries often have less than two hectares to work. The money they can earn from the crops grown is hardly enough to feed their families, never mind invest in education or health.
But even where productive land is available, it is not unlimited. Soil is a non-renewable resource. Arable land that has been rendered unusable through over-intensive agricultural use or destroyed by construction, for example, cannot be renewed over the span of a human lifetime. In Europe it takes around 2,000 years to produce just ten centimetres of fertile soil. So if external influences are too intense, the percentage of minerals and nutrients dwindles, the amount of air and water drops, and the soil degrades – it becomes increasingly barren, an irreversible process. In developing countries and industrialised nations alike: Unsustainable treatment of arable land is always fatal. This brings us to the second part of the exhibit:
“As human being, we depend on the soil. We need it for every aspect of our lives,” says Ute Sonntag. She could not be more right. Let’s take water as an example: Whether as drinking water, water for plants, for our morning shower, or to cook with – annually we human beings use around 4,000 square kilometres of fresh water. This is one and a half times more than the third largest lake in the world – Victoria Lake in East Africa.
This water comes out of the soil, which filters and stores rain water. This is why we have clean ground water, and as such drinking water.
Every year an additional 20 million hectares of arable land degrades to the point that it can no longer support crops.
Agriculture depends on fertile soil in a number of different ways: Farmers plant grains, vegetables and fruits in the soil, which also provides pasture for domestic animals. Farming is also the main source of income for many. Globally 1.3 billion people work in the agricultural sector. Yet although agriculture depends on healthy soil, it can also cause considerable damage. Every year an additional 20 million hectares of arable land degrades to the point that it can no longer support crops. Both industrial and smallholder farming play a part here. On the one end of the spectrum, pesticides and over-fertilisation destroy biodiversity in the soil. On the other end, a lack of financial resources can mean no fertilizer is used, which also degrades the soil.
In reality we need soil for all the food we eat, and for many other consumer goods as well, such as clothing, smartphones and automobiles.
We contribute as well through our personal lifestyle choices. After all, who really thinks about the fact that every cup of coffee we enjoy in the morning, every egg we cook for breakfast, every bowl of spaghetti Bolognese requires arable land? In reality we need soil for all the food we eat, and for many other consumer goods as well, such as clothing, smartphones and automobiles. This land is often not where we live. 60% percent of all the land area used for European consumption is located outside the EU, for example. As such the EU has a land footprint of around 640 million hectares per year in countries from which it imports “virtual land”. This area is then not available for food production for local people, most often in developing countries in which hunger and poverty shape everyday life.
This second part of the exhibit depicts a very dark picture – for soil and as such for human beings as well. But according to Ute Sonntag, the exhibit is designed as much more than just a warning. It also shows the way forward, and focuses on projects to protect the soil. Whether it is a group in Cologne that plants bell peppers, tomatoes and lettuce in the middle of the city, using “urban gardening” to raise awareness for sustainable agriculture and conservation of natural resources, or a German development cooperation project in the Sahel Region designed to counteract desertification – there are a lot of positive examples from all over the world. The third part also shows how many different ways there are to get involved on international and national level and as a private individual as well.
Whether in agriculture or other areas, one thing is very clear: We have to look at the system as a whole – human beings, the environment and the political framework conditions – when developing sustainable solutions. And while it is equally essential that the state take action and legal guidelines be drawn up, each and every individual can play a part as well.
Every consumer must therefore take responsibility; every manufacturer, every state and the international community have to get involved and focus on protecting the soil that sustains our lives.
If we ate less meat, for example, then considerably more arable land would be available to grow grain which could feed a greater number of people. We need to rethink our consumer behaviour across the board though, and not just with respect to food. We throw things away much too quickly when they are no longer cutting-edge or trendy, or when they break. So much of our rubbish could be repaired or recycled instead.
Every consumer must therefore take responsibility; every manufacturer, every state and the international community have to get involved and focus on protecting the soil that sustains our lives. The exhibition aims to raise awareness for this essential responsibility. It closes with a plea for mindfulness: “When you are at home this weekend, go out into your garden, into a field or into the woods. Pick up a handful of soil and smell its powerful aroma. And know that you are holding your own future in your hands.”
The exhibition “Soil. Sustains Life.” is part of a communication strategy of the same name and is directed at experts in the field, pupils, students and interested laypeople. The exhibit is available as roll-up banners or posters that can be borrowed free of charge and currently in three languages – German, English and French (only posters). Pictures included in the article are taken from the exhibition. For more information please visit: