Land and soil: towards the sustainable use and management of these vital resources

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Article Published 30 Sep 2019 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
7 min read
Photo: © Leyla Emektar, Sustainably Yours /EEA
We cannot live without healthy land and soil. It is on land that we produce most of our food and we build our homes. For all species — animals and plants living on land or water — land is vital.

Soil — one of the essential components of land — is a very complex and often undervalued element, teeming with life. Unfortunately, the way we currently use land and soil in Europe and in the world is not sustainable. This has significant impacts on life on land.

Throughout history, landscapes have always been subject to change, as a result of forces of nature and human activities. Mountains rise and sink, rocks erode, rivers dry up or change their course, floodplains appear and disappear. Humankind has flattened hills, landfilled coastlines, dried wetlands, removed mountain tops for mining, created artificial lakes and dams, cut forests to create fields and grazing land, and created new landscapes. An increasing share of our planet’s landscapes and land cover has in some way been modified by human activities. Today, around 80 % of Europe’s surface area is shaped by cities, agriculture and forestry.

Pressures on land and soil are growing

Europe’s urban areas are growing, often at the expense of fertile agricultural land. Concrete and asphalt surfaces seal the soil, preventing it from performing its functions such as storing water, producing food and biomass, regulating climate, buffering harmful chemicals and providing habitats. Rain on sealed surfaces runs off rather than seeping into the soil where it can be filtered and can replenish the groundwater. Roads, railways, canals and cities fragment the landscape, confining species to increasingly smaller areas and thus harming biodiversity. The way we use land in Europe is one of the reasons why the EU is not on track to achieve its target of halting biodiversity loss.

Europe is also not on track to achieve its policy target of ‘no net land take by 2050’. Farmland and semi-natural land continue to be taken by cities and by commercial and industrial sites. Many sectors — industry, agriculture, households and even waste water treatment — also release pollutants to land and soil. These pollutants can accumulate in soil and then enter groundwater, rivers and seas. Even pollutants initially released into the atmosphere can later be deposited on land surfaces. Today, traces of different contaminants are found even in the most remote parts of our continent.

In recent decades, Europe has decreased the total area used for agriculture while increasing yields. Intensification of agriculture has enabled us to produce food for a growing population. Intensive agriculture, which relies mainly on synthetic fertilisers and plant protection measures, is also putting pressure on the very resource that sustains it: healthy and productive soil. At the same time, we also see some agricultural land being abandoned in remote regions. Land abandonment affects, in particular, rural communities where local economies rely mainly on small farm holdings with limited economic prospects and low productivity, with younger generations tending to move to urban areas.

Global consumption and global impacts require global action

Land use has a global dimension. Many of the activities linked to land and its resources, in particular food production and resource extraction, are subject to global market forces. For example, global demand for fodder, food and bioenergy affect local agricultural production in many parts of the world, including Europe. Droughts and production shortages in exporting countries affect the global prices of, for instance, rice — a staple food for billions of people. Multinational companies can buy productive agricultural land in Africa and South America with a view to selling their products throughout the world.

The way we use land and soil is also directly linked to climate change. Soil contains significant amounts of carbon and nitrogen, which can be released into the atmosphere depending on how we use the land. Clearing tropical forests for cattle grazing or planting forests in Europe can tilt the global greenhouse gas emission balance one way or the other. The melting of permafrost due to rising average global temperatures can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, methane in particular, and accelerate temperature rise. Climate change can also substantially alter what European farmers can produce and where.


Land and soil terms at a glance

Land’ commonly refers to the planet’s surface not covered by seas, lakes or rivers. It includes the total land mass including continents and islands. In more daily use and legal texts, ‘land’ often refers to a designated piece of land. It consists of rocks, stones, soil, vegetation, animals, ponds, buildings, etc.

Land can be covered by different types of vegetation (e.g. natural or managed grassland, cropland and wetlands) and artificial surfaces (e.g. roads and buildings).

Soil is one of the essential components of land. It consists of particles of rock, sand and clay as well as organic material such as plant residues, soil-dwelling animals and organisms such as bacteria and fungi, along with the air and water in soil pores. Soil properties (e.g. texture, colour and carbon content) can vary from one area to another as well as across layers at the same site. Soil plays a crucial role in nature’s cycles, particularly the water cycle and the nutrient  cycles (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus).

Topsoil is the layer closest to the surface (usually the densely rooted zone or plough layer, down to 20-30 cm). It contains the highest amount of organic carbon and, given this, it is the most productive layer. One centimetre of topsoil can take from a few hundred to thousands of years to form. Given this, it is considered a non-renewable resource.

Deeper layers in the crust can contain other natural resources, including groundwater, minerals and fossil fuels.

Given this, many global policy frameworks, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, directly and indirectly address land and soil. European policies aim to tackle land take, reduce landscape fragmentation, pollutant emissions and greenhouse gas emissions, and protect biodiversity and soil. However, in some of these policy domains, protecting the condition of soil in particular, European and global policies fall short of setting targets and commitments — let alone binding ones. In other areas, where targets do exist, including those related to protecting nature and biodiversity, we are not achieving our policy goals.

Knowledge is needed for action on the ground

One of the challenges in setting and meeting targets is overcoming knowledge gaps. Monitoring progress towards a specific target needs to be backed by knowledge, agreed methods and tools. Thanks to Copernicus — the EU’s Earth observation programme — we now have a much more accurate and detailed picture of Europe’s land cover and how it is changing. For example, we can add different information layers to this picture to assess the potential impacts of climate change on soil moisture and hence agricultural productivity. This enhanced knowledge offers us new opportunities to take more targeted action on the ground.

At the same time, there are many aspects of land and soil that we need to understand better to address specific problems, in particular with regard to biodiversity. To be effective, actions will also need to take into account information on, for instance, the composition of the soil and how much carbon and nutrients the soil contains in a given area. This kind of information requires a better monitoring system.

Steps towards sustainable land management

The way forward is clear: we urgently need to change the way we use and manage land and the resources it provides. This will require looking at the landscape as a whole, with all its activities and elements.

The way we build and connect cities should not entail covering surrounding areas with concrete and asphalt but should be based on reusing and re-purposing land already taken. In fact, a report by IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) asserts that it is cheaper to preserve land and soil resources than to restore or remediate them (e.g. by cleaning contaminated land at old industrial facilities). Moreover, compact cities with well-connected mobility options often provide the highest quality of urban life with fewer direct environmental impacts. The EU’s cohesion and regional policies aim to support not only economic and social cohesion but also territorial cohesion, which aims to contribute to the balanced development of the EU as a whole.

We also need to step up our efforts to protect land ecosystems better. We can connect natural areas and create corridors for wildlife by investing in green infrastructure. Healthy and resilient soil ecosystems are also essential to help mitigate and adapt to climate change.

To achieve the sustainable management of our land resources, we need to significantly reduce pressure from economic activities, especially agriculture. To ensure sustainable and productive agriculture, we must tackle pollution and find new solutions for using land efficiently. We will also need to take into account livelihoods and the quality of life of rural communities. We need to rely on and work with farmers to take care of the land and rural biodiversity. Sustainable agriculture cannot be achieved without significant changes in diets and reductions in food waste in Europe and globally.

Land governance is complex but we all benefit from the services that healthy land and soil provide — be it nutritious food or clean water, protection against diseases or construction materials. To ensure that future generations continue to benefit from these services, we need to take decisive action today. The responsibility to protect these vital resources lies with us all — from consumers to farmers, and from local to European and global policymakers. This can only be achieved by acting together today towards a common goal.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx

EEA Executive Director

Europe's land and soil face a number of pressures, including urban expansion, contamination from
agriculture and industry, soil sealing, landscape fragmentation, low crop diversity, soil erosion and
extreme weather events linked to climate change.
Greener cities with cleaner energy and transport systems, a green infrastructure connecting green areas,
less intensive sustainable agricultural practices can help make Europe's land use more sustainable and
soils healthier.


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