Soils constitute the foundation for agricultural development, essential ecosystem functions and food security and hence are key to sustaining life on Earth. However, in the face of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, and human activity, our soils are being degraded and polluted, putting excessive pressure not only on this precious resource, but as well as the food systems that depend on healthy soils. Learn more about these issues and the role of Geneva-based organizations to promote the sustainable management of soils towards a food-secure world and stable and sustainably used ecosystems.
Healthy Soils and the Environment
Healthy soils constitute the foundation of the food system. Agricultural development, essential ecosystem functions, and food security rely on healthy soils that produce healthy crops, which in turn become key to sustaining life on Earth.
We rely on soils for 95 percent of the food we consume. As such, soil quality is directly linked to food quality and quantity. Soils supply the essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish. They also serve as a buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature.
However, soil erosion — defined as the accelerated removal of topsoil from the land surface through water, wind and tillage — is one of the major threats that face the world. Soil erosion occurs naturally, but it is significantly increased and accelerated by unsustainable human activities (up to 1,000 times) through intensive agriculture, deforestation, overgrazing, and improper land use changes.
It is estimated that the equivalent of one soccer pitch of earth erodes, every five seconds. It also takes around a thousand years to create just a few centimeters of topsoil and to help land restoration. Soil erosion rates are much higher than soil formation rates. Soil is a finite resource, meaning its loss and degradation is not recoverable within a human lifespan.
Soils and the Triple Planetary Crisis
In the face of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, our soils are being degraded and polluted, putting excessive pressure on this precious resource and the food systems that depend on it.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the impacts of climate change are already causing stress to agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture and hindering efforts to meet the global demand for food products (AR6, WGII, Chap. 5). According to IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019), land is both a source and a sink of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and as it plays a key role in the exchange of energy, water and aerosols between the land surface and atmosphere, land ecosystems and biodiversity are vulnerable to ongoing climate change and weather and climate extremes.
Climate-related disasters, such as droughts and floods, which can lead to increased soil erosion in many locations worldwide affecting ecosystem services and human well-being. These are also affecting the productivity of the food systems, with negative consequences for food security and livelihoods. The IPCC warns that these impacts will become stronger as climate change accelerates, with some areas of the globe becoming unsuitable for agriculture.
Land-use changes and unsustainable land management are direct human causes of land degradation, with agriculture being a dominant sector driving degradation as well as a major producer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Climate change also exacerbates the rate of degradation which eventually lessens soil’s ability to support plants that can take in carbon dioxide. Soil erosion also affects biogeochemical cycles and, therefore, interacts with climate change itself.
However, soils – and thus agriculture — on the other hand can also play a major role in mitigating climate change. Certain agricultural practices have the potential to store carbon in the soil and plants, and thus help mitigate climate change, while at the same time increasing soil fertility and water-holding capacity, improving yields and good nutrition, creating drought-tolerant soils, restoring degraded cropland and grasslands and nurturing biodiversity, with positive consequences on local economies.
Soil forms the basis of all terrestrial ecosystems. Healthy soils help to ensure food security, climate regulation, water and air quality, and a rich array of biodiversity above and below ground; they also help to prevent erosion, desertification, and landslides. However, human pressures on soil resources are reaching critical limits, thus threatening the biodiversity of species that rely on soil.
Moreover, ecosystem services from soil differ markedly between soil types, with some soils offering numerous benefits and others very few. The loss of soil biodiversity is not just a conservation issue but impairs multiple ecosystem functions, including decomposition rates, nutrient retention, soil structural development, and nutrient cycling. These functions are needed for clean water, pest and pathogen control, soil fertility and crop production, and climate change mitigation. Addressing losses in soil biodiversity is therefore a key step in building healthy soils.
Modern agriculture practices rely heavily on novel substances to increase productivity and reduce the costs of production. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and plastic materials used in agriculture, livestock production, are major drivers of soil pollution. The discharge of pollutants into the environment is not only a great concern for ecosystem health, but also for human health. Such pollutants include pathogens from livestock, pesticides, nitrates in groundwater, trace metallic elements and toxic chemicals, as well as antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant genes excreted by livestock. Some of these substances are regulated at the international level, for instance, the Stockholm Convention reviews and bans persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the infamous insecticide DDT.
More recently, the impacts of plastic use in agriculture have been under scrutiny, as new research revealed that these plastics are contaminating soils and thus impacting soil health, biodiversity, and productivity. Plastic substances are also used in chemical fertilizers, adding one more layer to the mix of substances that are leaking into the environment.
Access to land and healthy soil is a cross-cutting theme that affects the enjoyment of different human rights, including the human rights to food and to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Land and soil are also tied to people’s livelihoods as well as linked to certain traditions and knowledge systems. In the face of the triple planetary crisis, these environmental rights must be protected and upheld.
World Soil Day
World Soil Day (WSD) is held annually on 5 December as a means to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and to advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources. The establishment of an international day to celebrate soil was recommended by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) in 2002. After being endorsed at the FAO Conference in 2013, World Soil Day was formally recognized by the UN General Assembly.
2023 Theme – Soil and water, a source of life
This year’s theme for World Soil Day is Soil and water, a source of life. Our planet’s survival depends on the precious link between soil and water. Over 95 percent of our food originates from these two fundamental resources. Soil water, vital for nutrient absorption by plants, binds our ecosystems together. This symbiotic relationship is the foundation of our agricultural systems.
However, in the face of climate change and human activity, our soils are being degraded, putting excessive pressure on our water resources. Erosion disrupts the natural balance, reducing water infiltration and availability for all forms of life.
Sustainable soil management practices, such as minimum tillage, crop rotation, organic matter addition, and cover cropping, improve soil health, reduce erosion and pollution, and enhance water infiltration and storage. These practices also preserve soil biodiversity, improve fertility, and contribute to carbon sequestration, playing a crucial role in the fight against climate change.
Previous World Soil Days
UN Environment Assembly Tackling Soil Pollution
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. During its third session (UNEA-3) that convened in Nairobi, Kenya from 4 to 6 December 2017, under the theme “Towards a pollution-free planet”, Member States adopted a Ministerial Declaration and nine resolutions on air, water, soil and marine pollution, as well as on the environment and health. While these resolutions provided mandates for UNEP, they also called for joint actions by all relevant United Nations agencies, Multilateral Environment Agreements and stakeholders to fight pollution.
In resolution 3/6 ‘Managing Soil Pollution to Achieve Sustainable Development’, UNEA called for a report on the extent and future trends of soil pollution, considering both point source contamination and diffuse pollution, and on the risks and impacts of soil pollution on health, the environment and food security, including land degradation and the burden of disease resulting from exposure to contaminated soil.
The progress report to UNEA-4 ‘Progress in the Implementation of Resolution 3/6 on Managing Soil Pollution to Achieve Sustainable Development’ (UNEP/EA.4/9), highlighted the convening of the Global Symposium on Soil Pollution (GSOP18) at FAO headquarters in May 2018. The Symposium was co-organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and its Global Soil Partnership (GSP), the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), together with the Secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, UNEP and the World Health Organization to serve as a common platform to discuss and elaborate the latest information on the status, trends and actions (both scientific and political) on soil pollution and its threatful consequences on human health, food safety and the environment. It also included the launch of a report by FAO GSP ‘Soil Pollution: Hidden Reality,’ which provides a comprehensive summary of the state of soil pollution and identifies the main pollutants and their sources affecting human health and the environment. The conclusions and recommendations of the GSOP18 were reflected in the outcome document “Be the solution to soil pollution”.
A new progress report was presented at UNEA-5 (UNEP/EA.5/19), in February 2021, recognizing the steps taken in the implementation of the resolution on managing soil pollution to achieve sustainable development and announced the launch of the Global Assessment of Soil Pollution report in June 2021. The report and its summary, coordinated by the FAO’s GSP, the ITPS, and UNEP, are the product of an inclusive process involving scientists from all regions.
Other recently adopted international efforts that contribute to tackling soil pollution more efficiently include the UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration adopted in March 2019.
Although there is currently no binding international agreement focusing specifically on soil pollution prevention, control, and remediation, a series of binding conventions partially support this objective, as do various other international organizations and non-governmental organizations active in Geneva.
Role of Geneva
Various international organizations, multilateral environmental agreements, and non-governmental organizations active in Geneva address the importance of healthy soils. By alphabetical order, these include:
Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted in 1989 and became effective in May 1992. The principal aims of the Convention are the reduction of hazardous waste generation and the promotion of environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, wherever the place of disposal; the restriction of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes except where it is perceived to be in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management; and a regulatory system applying to cases where transboundary movements are permissible.Currently there are 188 parties to the Basel Convention.
The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals. The goals of the Convention are to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among the Parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm; and to contribute to the environmentally sound use of those hazardous chemicals, by facilitating information exchange about their characteristics, providing for a national decision-making process on their import and export and disseminating these decisions to Parties. The Convention was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in February 2004.
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (signed in 2001 and effective from May 2004) aims to restrict or eliminate the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), characterized by their persistence in the environment, their resistance to degradation, and high toxicity. As well as prohibiting the production and use of the listed POPs, the Convention also ensures that stockpiles and wastes consisting of or contaminated by POPs are managed in an environmentally sound manner. Improper storage and disposal of POPs is a major source of global soil pollution.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Liaison Office
FAO is the leading organization on issues related to food and agriculture, with headquarters in Rome and a liaison office in Geneva. The Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment works to ensure that countries and stakeholders respond to the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation, keeping food and agriculture sustainability high on the agenda. FAO has produced authoritative reports on the status of food systems, environmental challenges and policy options. It also provides support to countries to transition to more sustainable food systems, adapt to climate change, and sustainably use and conserve biodiversity for food security. FAO also hosts the Global Soil Partnership (GSP), a globally recognized mechanism established in 2012 with the mission to position soils in the Global Agenda and to promote sustainable soil management.
Group on Earth Observations (GEO)
GEO is a partnership of more than 100 national governments and over 100 Participating Organizations that envisions a future where decisions and actions for the benefit of humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations. The Group on Earth Observations Land Degradation Neutrality Initiative (GEO-LDN) is a stakeholder-driven initiative that brings together Earth observation data providers, governments and practitioners, to facilitate access to necessary data and tools to prioritize interventions and monitor outcomes to manage land better.
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
Aiming to provide a world where people and the planet thrive, the work of IISD focuses on accelerating solutions for a stable climate, sustainable resources, and fair economies. Recognizing the complexity of today’s challenges, they work on sustainable solutions in various fields such as food and agriculture, nature-based solutions, and climate change. Their work includes taking a look at the intersection of food systems, climate change, nutrition and biodiversity, to provide policymakers pathways that address these issues together.
International Labour Organization (ILO)
ILO supports approaches that advance decent work, environmental sustainability and resilience, and address the growing challenges of labour mobility through policies and projects around the world. Environmental challenges, such as desertification, land degradation and drought have major implications for creating decent work. If not addressed they can exacerbate conflicts, displacement and migration and undermine prospects for the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals.
International Organization for Migration (IOM, UN Migration)
IOM is the UN body in the field of migration and is committed to the principle that humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society. As the relationship between environmental and climate change and migration is often complicated by the multifaceted associations with other factors, such as population growth, poverty, governance, human security and conflict, IOM works on a comprehensive approach to address the migration-environment nexus, including the prevention of soil erosion in shelters and camps.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The IPCC — the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change — released a Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019) that addresses greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes in land-based ecosystems, land use and sustainable land management in relation to climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security.
The report finds that as land is both a source and a sink of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and as it plays a key role in the exchange of energy, water and aerosols between the land surface and atmosphere, land ecosystems and biodiversity are vulnerable to ongoing climate change and weather and climate extremes, to different extents. As such, sustainable land management can contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple stressors, including climate change, on ecosystems and societies.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
The work of IUCN on Nature-based solutions (NBS) and Sustainable Land Management shows their engagement in agriculture and soil biodiversity. IUCN has developed a new engagement in agriculture, guided by the vision of a future where biodiversity is restored and conserved on farms and in agricultural landscapes as nature-based solutions to global challenges and human and societal needs, contributing to the transition towards sustainable and resilient societies. In 2021, they launched a global initiative on agriculture and land health meant to boost the implementation of this agriculture programme across IUCN activities.
Minamata Convention on Mercury
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. The major highlights of the Minamata Convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, the phase-out and phase-down of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures on emissions to air and on releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of artisanal and small-scale gold mining. The Convention also addresses interim storage of mercury and its disposal once it becomes waste, sites contaminated by mercury as well as health issues.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR, UN Human Rights)
UN Human Rights aims to promote a human rights-based approach to face the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. A safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is essential to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to health, food, water and sanitation. Desertification, land degradation and drought are among the greatest environmental challenges we face today. The profound impact of climate change-related soil degradation and declining food production on income, health, resource competition, conflict, and displacement – a vicious cycle that now spins deeper with every planting season.
Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency)
UNHCR is the UN organization that leads global action to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, including the provision of shelters. Good settlement planning facilitates the resilience and well-being of people, as well as the equitable and efficient delivery of goods and services, and has a positive effect on the environment. In line with the UNHCR Climate Action Framework and Operational Strategy for Climate Resilience and Environmental Sustainability (2021), embedding environmental considerations in sectoral interventions plays a crucial role to ameliorate anticipated climate change impacts, improve overall natural resources management, and reduce the impact of the sector’s responses on the environment.
As such the Green Compendium Guide was published, of which a part addresses soil erosion and compacting in various camps and settlements, ensuring optimal regeneration to avoid environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, thus minimizing harm to the environment in a wide variety of contexts in which UNHCR is operating.
Save Soil is a global movement, launched by Sadhguru, to support leaders of all nations to institute national policies and actions to safeguard, nurture, and sustain soil by increasing the organic content in cultivable soil to a minimum of 3–6%. Nine major UN agencies support the movement, including the UN SDG Lab and WHO in Geneva.
Save Soil grew out of Cauvery Calling, the world’s largest farmer-driven ecological movement. As of June 2023, the project has enabled the planting of 90 million living trees to revitalize the 83,000 square kilometer Cauvery River basin area in India and 176,000 farmers have transitioned to tree-based agriculture. The ecological and economic success of Cauvery Calling provides a blueprint for the tropical world.
The Government of Guyana will work with the Save Soil team on 100 sq. km of agricultural land to increase the soil organic matter to 3-6% and create a demonstrable model for the world. Save Soil has reached over 4 billion people, making it the world’s largest people’s movement.
Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food addresses the need for an integrated and coordinated approach to promoting and protecting people’s right to food, for example, climate change and the right to food. It outlines the adverse impact of climate change on the right to food and places particular emphasis on the geographic and socioeconomic vulnerabilities of those most affected. It also highlights the negative impact that current agricultural practices and food systems are having on climate change. The current Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is Michael Fakhri.
United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD)
UN-REDD is the UN knowledge and advisory platform on forest solutions to the climate crisis. With a goal to help realise forest solutions to the climate emergency by avoiding carbon emissions and fostering carbon sequestration, UN-REDD works on reducing deforestation, promoting sustainable land uses, advancing international cooperative approaches to climate mitigation, and mobilizing climate finance towards sustainably managed forest resources, thus contributing to the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
UNCTAD is active in responsible consumption and production and its BioTrade Initiative concerns itself with products or services sourced from biodiversity that are commercialized and traded in a way that respects people and nature. UNCTAD has developed BioTrade Principles and Criteria (P&C) as a set of guidelines for businesses, governments, and civil society who wish to support the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits through trade.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
UNECE has addressed the food loss challenge since 2013, with a view of enhancing the circular economy in its member states. As food production is increasingly threatened by air pollution, which affects soil quality and crop yields, UNECE supports countries with guidance on reducing ammonia emissions from agriculture. Recommendations and training on the use and implementation of UNECE’s international agricultural quality standards and best practices also help producers, traders and national authorities to increase quality production and yields.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR)
UNDRR helps decision-makers across the globe better understand and act on risk. Environmental degradation is, for example, both a driver and a consequence of disasters. For instance, intensive agriculture can alter a land’s absorption capacity, increasing flood risk. Floods, in turn, will cause additional soil deterioration. Soil erosion and land degradation pose a major threat to global food security and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Soil pollution has also been identified as one of the main soil threats affecting global soils and the ecosystem services that they provide.
World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
WBCSD Food and Nature Program leads business efforts to accelerate a system transformation in the areas of food, nature and water. WBCSD brings leadership standards and tools, advocacy and projects across the value chain – from production to consumption – which deliver impact at scale where the urgent agendas of climate, nature and food systems intersect. The program also tackles food and agriculture and its Guide to Food System Transformation identified seven pathways where business must lead to drive system transformation and ensure delivery of the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement.
World Food Programme (WFP) Office in Geneva
WFP‘s work on sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems helps countries and the most vulnerable and food-insecure communities manage natural resources sustainably. These include soil conservation and fertility measures, water harvesting and flood control, agro-ecological productivity to reduce biodiversity loss, irrigation schemes, forestry and agroforestry management, and, access to clean water in arid and semi-arid contexts — all of which results in more diversified food and complements nutrition efforts. As such, the restoration of degraded ecosystems boosts public health and reduces hardship in general.
World Health Organization (WHO)
WHO’s Health and the Environment programme supports Member States to improve health outcomes linked to environmental risks. Among these, soil-transmitted helminth infections are among the most common infections worldwide with an estimated 1.5 billion infected people or 24% of the world’s population. These infections affect the poorest and most deprived communities with poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in tropical and subtropical areas. In 2001, delegates at the World Health Assembly unanimously endorsed a resolution (WHA54.19) urging endemic countries to start seriously tackling worms, specifically schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths.
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
WMO is the UN system’s authoritative voice on the state and behaviour of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the land and oceans, the weather and climate it produces and the resulting distribution of water resources. Its Commission for Agricultural Meteorology provides scientific and technological guidance to WMO Members in the sectors of agricultural, forestry, livestock and fisheries, not only for food production but also for agricultural meteorological risk governance in terms of agro-ecosystem resilience and sustainability. As soil moisture is an important variable in land–atmosphere feedbacks at both weather and climate timescales — it plays a major role in partitioning the incoming radiation flux onto the land into fluxes of latent and sensible heat from the land to the atmosphere, and in separating precipitation into runoff, subsurface flow, and infiltration — WMO plays a role in identifying changes in soil moisture that can have substantial impacts on agricultural productivity, forestry and ecosystem health.
World Wildlife Fund International (WWF)
WWF is an independent conservation organization active in nearly 100 countries, seeking to protect and restore natural habitats, stop the mass extinction of wildlife, and make the way we produce and consume sustainable. It’s work addresses direct and indirect threats—and the forces that drive them—to conserve biodiversity and reduce humanity’s ecological footprint. This includes preserving the health of soils, this vital global resource that hosts 1/4 of our planet’s biodiversity.
Switzerland and Local Geneva
The CLEVER activity created by the Biovision makes it possible to address the theme of responsible consumption with the public, especially young people. In 2023, Biovision launched the Business Agroecology Criteria Tool (B-ACT) to assess and identify inspiring and promising agroecological enterprises that contribute to sustainable food systems.
News and Resources
- Journée des sols: Nos sols, une ressource précieuse et pourtant méconnue | FOEN | 5 December 2023
- From the soil to the stars | FAO | 13 November 2023
- Proposal for a Directive on Soil Monitoring and Resilience (Soil Monitoring Law)| EU Commission | 5 June 2023
- Soil’s health is crucial for food production: here’s how to better protect it | World Economic Forum | 6 February 2023
- CBD COP15 Event Warns of Threats from Loss of Soil Biodiversity | IISD | 11 January 2023
- A generational responsibility to save soil | UNtoday | 1 October 2022
- Sowing a Plastic Planet: How Microplastics in Agrochemicals Are Affecting Our Soils, Our Food, and Our Future | CIEL | 24 May 2022
- Food system impacts on biodiversity loss | UNEP, Chatham House and Compassion in World Farming | 3 February 2021
- Soil pollution a risk to our health and food security | UNEP | 4 December 2020
- Stopping soil pollution is key for food security and safety | FAO | 4 December 2018
- Special Report on Climate Change Land | IPCC | 2018 | See chapter 5 on food security
- Tackling the growing challenge of soil pollution | UNEP | 5 December 2017