Soil degradation could accelerate without prompt action

The degradation of soil in Europe will continue, and could even accelerate unless prompt action is taken now, according to a new report by the European Environment Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme.

According to Down to Earth: Soil degradation and sustainable development in Europe – A Challenge for the XXI Century, released at the annual meeting of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the continent’s soils are being over-stressed by dense settlement patterns and intensive economic activities and by acidification, erosion, contamination, and changes in climate. Growing demands for food production, living space, leisure and tourism facilities, infrastructure and industrial production will only increase the pressure, says the report.

“The sustainable use of soils is one of Europe’s greatest environmental, social and economic challenges,” said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UNEP. “Although often overlooked, soil is a natural resource that is no less important to human well-being and the environment than clean water and clean air.”

In some parts of Europe, the degradation is so severe that it has reduced the soil’s capacity to support human communities and ecosystems, resulting in desertification, a process which is as good as irreversible due to the hundreds or thousands of years needed to regenerate most soils, says the report.

The degradation is not only confined to the drier Mediterranean countries. Central Europe is also seriously affected, including nations such as Germany and Austria, but so are countries such as Ireland and Iceland; and it is expected that water erosion risks will increase by 2050 in 80% of the EU’s agricultural land.

“Soil degradation is part of the systematic abuse of the European space, its territory and the natural resources involved,” said Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency. “This may become, in particular in the EU area, a main challenge for sustainability and would require a common approach.”

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