We are using the world’s soils as if they were inexhaustible, continually withdrawing from an account, but never paying in. For it takes several thousand years to build a thin layer of fertile topsoil, but only an hour of heavy rain to lose it. The average European needs 1.3 hectares – two football pitches – to produce all of the food and other products he or she consumes each year. That is about six times more than is available to each Bangladeshi. Almost 60 percent of the area consumed by Europeans lies outside the European Union.
Global demand for food, fodder and biofuels is on the rise. So too are land prices. In many regions, the struggle for secure land rights is a struggle for survival for individuals and communities. The global significance of soils demands global responses. 2015 is the International Year of Soils. In this year, the United Nations wants to further the goal of soil protection. This Soil Atlas shows what can succeed and why the soil should concern us all.
The Soil Atlas is available in a printed version and available for download (PDF). All texts and graphics can be used under the Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-SA. The graphics are available as a seperate download (ZIP) as well.
Table of contents
- LESSONS TO LEARN ABOUT SOIL AND THE WORLD
- WORDS AND CULTURE - ON UNSTEADY GROUND
A look at history reveals deep-rooted changes in our views about the earth beneath our feet – and helps us understand who we are.
- BENEATH THE GROUND - THE INVISIBLE ECOSYSTEM
Soil fertility depends on several factors: the soil age, its parent material, its organic matter content, the climate – and people.
- ABOVE THE GROUND - LIVING ON A POSTAGE STAMP, EATING FROM A THIMBLE
The world is a big place – but we are rapidly running out of room to grow our food, and we are using it in the wrong way.
- MEMORY - THE ARCHIVE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
Soils preserve the history of the landscape and the people who live there. They will reveal to future generations how good our current stewardship of the planet has been.
- HOTSPOTS - BAD STEWARDSHIP
- INTENSIVE CROPPING - A TROUBLED FUTURE FOR INDUSTRIAL FARMING
Less humus means lower fertility – something that no amount of fertilizer can solve. And new cultivation methods bring new problems.
- MINERAL FERTILIZERS - AN EMPTY PROMISE TO END GLOBAL HUNGER
Fertilizers are often seen as a vital means to increasing food production and crop yields worldwide. But the long-term damage they cause to the soil is often forgotten.
- THE FERTILIZER INDUSTRY - PLANT FOOD IN A BAG, FIRMS WITH A COMMON CAUSE
Producing and marketing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium take a lot of investment, so the industry is dominated by big business.
- FODDER CROPS - FEEDING FACTORY FARMS
Is industrial livestock production really an efficient way to produce meat and milk? The fodder needed to feed confined animals must be imported – and the manure has to go somewhere.
- CLIMATE - THE GIVE AND TAKE OF AIR AND EARTH
Climate and soil influence each other in many ways: the climate helps form the soil, and the soil in turn affects the composition of the atmosphere – in particular the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
- ENERGY - DIGGING FOR FUELS
Can alternative fuels save the planet? Some, such as tar sands, are obviously dirty. But growing biofuels takes lots of land, and they may not be as climate-neutral as once hoped.
- MINING - ADDING UP THE COSTS OF A HOLE IN THE GROUND
Less than one percent of the world’s land is used for mineral extraction – a tiny amount compared to agriculture. But mining has a disproportionate effect on the environment.
- URBANIZATION - FLOCKING TOGETHER: LIVING IN A CROWD
Humans are a gregarious species. As more and more of us move into cities, we are paving over big chunks of the planet.
- HOTSPOTS - STRUGGLE AND STRIFE
- LAND INVESTMENTS - A NEW TYPE OF TERRITORIAL EXPANSION
As foreigners snap up farmland around the world, it is hard to know who is investing in what, and what the effects on local people might be. An international database is throwing light on the murk.
- EUROPEAN LAND IMPORTS - CONSUMING MORE THAN OUR FAIR SHARE
When we consume products, we are using land – and that land may well be in another country. Our consumption patterns have big effects on the economy, society and ecology of the producing areas.
- BIG BUSINESS - FIGHTING BACK AGAINST FOREIGN ACQUISITIONS
Large investors are buying up land in developing countries. The locals often suffer as a result. They lose their land and access to food.
- LANDOWNING - BUY AN ESTATE AND HARVEST THE SUBSIDIES
Europe’s small-scale family farmers are subject to many of the same pressures as those in the rest of the world. In addition, the cards are stacked against them by government policies.
- LAND REFORM - THE POWER OF PROPERTY: A PRIVILEGE FOR A FEW
The feudal lord, the local squire, the village chief, the hacienda owner, the rancher and the plantation baron. They owned, or own, expansive acres, and they pull the strings of power.
- LAND POLICY - ACCELERATING OFF A CLIFF
Soils are scarcely mentioned in international agreements. The neglect has not been benign.
- HOT SPOTS - BRIGHTENING UP
- GENDER - A PIECE OF LAND TO CALL HER OWN
Land is important for women not just because it enables them to grow food. It is also a form of wealth, somewhere to live, a source of independence and bargaining power, and a means to get credit and government services.
- THE COMMONS - THIS LAND IS OUR LAND
Who controls the land: private individuals, the government, or the community? Without private ownership, people have little incentive to invest. But community-managed commons are vital for billions of people.
- DRYLANDS - KEEPING LIVESTOCK ON THE MOVE
Until recently, drylands were thought to be fragile and unproductive, and the pastoralists who live there were criticized for harming the environment. But these views are changing.
- TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS - REHABILITATING THE SOIL: WHAT FARMERS CAN DO
Years of overuse have left soils compacted, eroded and depleted of nutrients. What can small-scale farmers do to restore the soil?
- ORGANIC FARMING - FEEDING CROPS BY FEEDING THE SOIL
Conventional farming relies on fertilizer to feed the crops, but in doing so it wrecks the soil. Organic farming sees the soil as the basis of sustainable production.
- GREEN CITIES - FROM URBAN GARDENING TO AQUAPONICS
By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will live in urban areas. Our quality of life depends on how liveable our cities are. Gardens have multiple functions: they produce a surprising amount of food, help prevent floods, cool the air – and are a pleasant place to relax away from the city bustle.
- AUTHORS AND SOURCES FOR DATA AND GRAPHICS