UN Report Assesses Dire State of Global Soil Pollution

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Two UN entities released a report on Friday, Global Assessment of Soil Pollution: Summary for Policymakers, describing the dire state of soil pollution worldwide.

According to the Abstract:

Soil pollution is invisible to the human eye, but it compromises the quality of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe and puts human and environmental health at risk. Most contaminants originate from human activities such as industrial processes and mining, poor waste management, unsustainable farming practices, accidents ranging from small chemical spills to accidents at nuclear power plants, and the many effects of armed conflicts. Pollution knows no borders: contaminants are spread throughout terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and many are distributed globally by atmospheric transport. In addition, they are redistributed through the global economy by way of food and production chains.

The hefty summary report makes for gloomy reading, as it describes the many types of pollutants that contaminate soil. I found Figure 4, Main effects of soil contaminants on human health, indicating the organs or systems affected and the contaminants causing them, on p. 6, to be particularly enlightening, but also depressing, as it provides a summary of the damage various pollutants cause, arranged to correspond to the part of the human body where particular damage concentrates.

From the Abstract:

Soil pollution has been internationally recognized as a major threat to soil health, and it affects the soil’s ability to provide ecosystems services, including the production of safe and sufficient food, compromising global food security. Soil pollution hinders the achievement of many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those related to poverty elimination (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2) and good health and well-being (SDG 3). Soil pollution hits the most vulnerable hardest, especially children and women (SDG 5). The supply of safe drinking water is threatened by the leaching of contaminants into groundwater and runoff (SDG 6). CO2 and N2O emissions from unsustainably managed soils accelerate climate change (SDG 13). Soil pollution contributes to land degradation and loss of terrestrial (SDG 15) and aquatic (SDG 14) biodiversity, and decreased security and resilience of cities (SDG 11), among others.

So much comes down to soil health, a subject that it cannot be said is widely understood. And so many modern practices – including but not limited to industrial agriculture, damage rather than support soil health.

According to Business Green, ‘Utmost importance’: Worsening soil pollution among planet’s biggest challenges, UN warns:

Soil pollution is deteriorating worldwide as a result of unsustainable farming practices and industrial processes, all of which poses a major and growing threat to global food production, human health, and the environment, the United Nations has warned.

A global response to the mounting crisis facing the world’s soils is urgently needed from governments and businesses, it said, as poor soil health and pollution is compromising food and water supplies, as well as air quality.

Industrial and mining activities, poorly managed urban and industrial waste, fossil fuel extraction and processing, as well as unsustainable agricultural practices and transport are the main culprits behind damaging soil pollution identified in a report by the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released late last week.

The joint assessment of the health of the world’s soils underscores the scale of the soil crisis and its myriad impacts, concluding that environmental degradation caused by soil pollution is one of the world’s most pressing challenges.

What Is to Be Done?

Whereas global action  is surely needed, prospects for any coordinated global response look grim – especially as the Biden administration seems to be following the standard neo- liberal Democratic playbook on environmental issues, particularly aspects that require attention to developing countries, relying on rhetoric, PR, and messaging, and eschewing concrete action (see my Environmental Activists Call on Biden Administration to Pursue Ratification of the Basel Convention to Block U.S. Exports of Plastics and e-Waste).

UN officials can call for action in ringing terms, yet alas, a wan, piecemeal response seems the best that can be expected, a hodge podge of measures, including the ever-popular business-government partnerships. Over again to Business Green:

FAO director-general QU Dongyu said a coordinated response to address soil pollution and boost soil health in line with the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was urgently needed, as soil health is fundamental to ensuring a healthy planet.

“Soil protection is of the utmost importance to ensure the success of our future agri-food systems, ecosystem restoration and all lives on earth,” he said. “Our society wants more nutritious and safe foods, free of contaminants and pathogens.”

The report highlights how soils are being damaged on multiple fronts thanks to a combination of unsustainable farming and industrial practices. For example, it estimates use of pesticides increased 75 per cent between 2000 and 2017, while around 109 million tonnes of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers were applied around the world in 2018. Meanwhile, the use of plastics in agriculture has also seen a sharp increase in recent decades, reaching 708,000 tonnes of non-packaging plastic in the EU alone in 2019. And the global annual production of industrial chemicals has doubled to around 2.3 billion tonnes since the turn of the Millennium, and is projected to increase by a further 85 per cent by 2030.

Waste levels are also on the rise, with the report projecting an increase from two billion tonnes produced each year worldwide to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050, as a result of rising population growth and urbanisation.

Scientists believe many contaminants released into the world’s soils from agriculture, industry, and waste production can stick around in the environment for hundreds of thousands of years and are now widely distributed across the planet. Yet relatively little is known about most contaminant releases as – other than pesticides – they are not quantified, according to the report.

Much greater research is needed to determine the extent of soil pollution worldwide, it warns, adding that the proliferation of organic contaminants as well as pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, industrial chemicals, and plastic residues are all areas of growing concern.

“Despite decades of research, inventorying and monitoring of point-source polluted soils in a number of countries, there are still significant knowledge gaps and uncertainty about the number and extent of areas affected, which is compounded by the emergence of new contaminants,” it states. “The knowledge gap on soils affected by diffuse pollution and its impact on other environmental compartments is even greater.”

It further warns that turning the tide of the growing soil pollution crisis will prove “complex and costly – potentially running to hundreds of millions of dollars per year – and argues the immediate focus should turn to prevention to stop the situation worsening”.

The report calls for the establishment of a Global Soil Pollution Information and Monitoring System, stronger legal frameworks for preventing soil pollution, and more collaborative initiatives between companies and governments to counteract the growing problem.

The Guardian’s report, World’s soils ‘under great pressure’, says UN pollution report. highlights similar hand-wringing:

Inger Andersen, head of the UN environment programme (Unep), said: “Soil pollution may be invisible to human eyes but it compromises the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Pollution knows no borders – contaminants move through soil, air and water.

“It is time to reconnect with our soils, as it is where our food begins,” she said. “Soil pollution should no longer be a hidden reality. Let us all be part of the solution to soil pollution.”

The future for soils looks “bleak” and their state is as at least as important as the climate emergency and the destruction of the natural world above ground, according to the scientists behind another UN report on soil biodiversity, published in December. Since the Industrial Revolution, about 135bn tonnes of soil has been lost from farmland and, given that it takes thousands of years for soils to form, urgent protection and restoration of the soils that remain is needed, the scientists said.

The new UN report concludes: “Soil contaminants can have irreparable consequences on human and ecosystem health.” The biggest source of soil pollution varies by region, it found. The biggest problem is industrial pollution in western Europe and North America, farming in Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe, and mining in sub-Saharan Africa. In north Africa and the near east, urban pollution is the biggest single source of contamination.

Those of us who enjoy gardening or producing some of our own food can take steps to enriching the soil in our immediate environs, by composting, for example (see New Adventures in Gardening: Urban Composting). Many in the NC community have shared their experiences with improving soil.

Yet such backyard initiatives don’t address the crux of the problem. According to The Guardian:

“The fundamental step of identifying the party liable for the pollution is still lacking in many states,” the report said. “Soil pollution is expected to increase unless there is a rapid shift in production and consumption patterns and a political commitment towards a real sustainable management where nature is fully respected.”

That’s a succinct statement of the problem. As is overwhelmingly the case with pollution issues, the ability of governments to identify responsible culprits – let along hold them accountable for repairing the damage they’ve caused  – has yet to occur at the necessary scale. The UN report recognizes that identification is fundamental for the “polluter pays” principle to apply (p. XIX).

Time may be running out for restoring the health of the world’s soil. Will governments act to reverse course?

Alas, I fear not.

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    1. CuriosityConcern

      My hare-brained scheme is that after a forest fire, a percentage of the remaining charcoal should be buried in-situ. It would sequester that remaining carbon temporarily and build soil health. The buried carbon would be a food resource for soil bacteria and fungi.

  1. Jeremy Grimm

    There are almost too many problems affecting the world’s food supplies to track or somehow integrate into a big-picture. But though the details and their interrelationships may be fuzzy the big-picture is very sad and frightening. As world populations continue to grow, the food supplies can make no promises they will continue at present levels or grow to feed larger populations. We live in most interesting times indeed.

  2. Edward

    Environmental impacts seem too indirect to mobilize the public. Pollution might cause cancer 20 years after exposure; at that point someone might decide the pollution wasn’t such a good idea, but the realization is 20 years too late. On top of that, environmentalists are fighting an uphill battle against the corporate propaganda system. I think there has been a growing appreciation of environmental issues, but it has been slow going.

    This soil problem sounds pretty important, but its not an issue I have heard about, and there will probably be a time lag for the public to act. Wouldn’t it be great if pesticides were banned, and we just used organic agriculture? Interestingly, Putin has broached this idea. From time to time he makes “green” statements like this. I think it is a testament to how far to the right the U.S. establishment is that a hard-headed realist like Putin can seem on the “left”.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If/when the “world” reaches a sudden nausea-revulsion threshhold with regard to polluted food from polluted soil, and if the RussiaGov can keep soil pollution and food pollution including most of all glyphosate and gluphosinate pollution and GMO pollution rigidly out of the Russian Federation’s soil and the Russian Federation’s food supply; then the Russian Federation will be all set for a lucrative future as the ” safe food” and “safe seeds” foodbasket and seed company of the whole entire world.

  3. MTC

    Where I live in Maine, dumping materials that cannot be freely placed in in the municipal waste stream on someone’s land for a small fee is a common cottage industry. Demolition materials, old cars, used oil and other petroleum products… all dumped for a few hundred dollars on the land of nearby neighbors. Poisoned wells seem to be the first result but few people seem to care and authorities are MIA. State Dept. of Environmental Protection and city code enforcement are reluctant to take action, and even when they do, they don’t demand much more than cosmetic corrections. There are also illegal junk yards pouring gallons and gallons of petroleum waste into the soil every day. The police and DEP authorities actually seem scared of the junk yard owners who are, admittedly hostile, and openly carrying firearms. I don’t think this ends well locally or internationally.

  4. vw

    This is portrayed as a small story, even on NC. But… it’s the only story. Think for even 5 minutes on it, and I bet you can figure out why.

    50 years from now, it might be the only story published in 2021 that was of any importance whatsoever.

    I wish I could scream it from the rooftops: Start a garden, if you can, and support your local organic farms TODAY, like your life depends on it. Because… it almost certainly will.

  5. Susan the other

    I’d guess it is now possible to initiate an effective environmental protection accounting system. Everything that is manufactured; sold; used and discarded can be accounted for. Not just agricultural and industrial chemicals, but commercial items In the context of both recycling and repurposing. And in cases where substances are toxic and/or not recyclable it will be a good idea to consider not manufacturing them in the first place. There’s no good reason to allow toxic trash. So much of it also winds up in the ocean. And that is where it is impossible to sequester… so better to catch it on land. And for all of the lovely cruise ships and merchant monsters there should also be environmental accounting. If they are never allowed to take on freight that is toxic, then it will never be dumped in the great gyre. Really one of the best ways to prevent toxic waste is to not produce it in the first place. Interesting to see how Venice is reacting to cruise ships lately. And equally to hear about all of Monsanto’s problems now become Bayer’s. So the good news is starting to come. When we get to remediation and reclamation, resurrecting the planet, it will definitely be good news.

  6. drumlin woodchuckles

    There are yet other sources of soil-pollution. I remember reading some years ago about how the EPA working with Industry concocted some spurious logic and corporate junk science to justify mixing industrial toxic waste into fertilizer by cleverly dis-naming as “plant nutrients” in order to hide it in plain sight by selling it to farmers to spread on millions of acres of farmland. Is there any reason to think the EPA-Industrial Complex has changed its thinking and acting in this regard? I can’t think of any. ( Though if its different now, someone please say so.) Anyway, here is a link to some journalism on the subject.

    Municipal sewage sludge is re-branded as “bio-solids” and sold to gardeners and farmers in order to hide-in-plain sight all the urban and suburban poisons in that sludge by thinly spreading them over millions of acres of land. “Milorganite” is one brand of such toxichemical sewage sludge for spreading on soil.

    Glyphosate and gluphosinate themselves are a new pollution source deliberately sold and carefully applied to hundreds of millions of acres of farmland, where they lock up plant-nutrient metal ions into plant-proof chelated complexes, thereby starving plants of critical metal ion nutrients. This is one of the danger problems which Professor Don Huber and others have been noting. They have been trying to work on ways to break down or otherwise “depollute” the glyphosate and gluphosinate in the soil to stop this nutrient-lockup effect. Yet the merchants of glypho and gluphos are still selling hundreds of millions of acres-worth of these super-chelating super ion-lockup chemicals to hundreds of thousands of farmers.

    Any ideas on countering this determined and powerful deliberate soil-pollution movement are welcome.
    But can people be blamed in the meantime for trying to seek their own personal and family escape by growing their own food in non-polluted gardens and buying non-polluted food from provably non-polluted soil? I wouldn’t blame the people who try to seek their own in-the-meantime escape. I try seeking my own in-the-meantime-escape from the poison-soil poison-food grown by the International Soil Poison Conspiracy. Which, by the way, government works for . . . . so don’t expect government to work against it. ( Well. . . maybe the Putin and post-Putin government in Russia will work against it within the borders of Russia. In which case, Russia will be a source of less-polluted food from less-polluted soil for sale at top dollar to those who are rich enough to afford it),

    1. Darius

      Do you think glyphosate is too dangerous even for spot applications, like killing a patch of invasives?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I’m just a layman. But my just-a-layman’s-feeling is that no, it isn’t. Killing a patch of invasives is smaller than glyphosating millions of acres of farmland.

        Of course it is just as dangerous to the soil right under and around those invasives. If I myself had a patch of invasives, I would try various hand-control measures first, including cutting them back over and over and over again until they wear out, give up and die.

  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    Now . . . here is a more “recent” article claiming that the EPA has changed its mind about some of this and is working against this practice of hiding industrial waste in fertilizer to sell it to farmers. But how true should we trust it to be and how much should we trust the EPA to really have changed its mind and its actions?
    Anyway, here is the link.

    I would still limit myself to self-grown and/or certifiably organic ( and hoping for the best there).

  8. Darius

    I do a lazy man’s bokashi. I mostly keep it going with discarded sourdough starter and homemade hard cider. I saw somewhere, maybe here, that you can finish it in a covered bucket with holes drilled in the bottom, set on bare soil. Does anyone have any links for this?

    Many thanks.

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