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.