Soil pollution: Searching for a sustainable solution

Worldwide, poor farming techniques are polluting soils. If allowed to continue, the currently ‘hidden’ effects of soil degradation upon human health and nutrition are expected to become more difficult to ignore.

Soil pollution can come in various forms and it effects productivity, food security and nutrition © Georgina Smith/CIAT

Soil pollution results from a range of human activities: industrialisation, war and mining, to name a few. Overuse or spills of agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilisers, also degrade soil, which threatens crop productivity, food security and nutrition. According to Maria Helena Semedo, FAO deputy director-general, “The potential of soils to cope with pollution is limited; the prevention of soil pollution should be a top priority worldwide.”

This comment by Semedo was made in May 2018, at the launch of the FAO report, Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality. The publication sets out the nature of soil pollution currently afflicting Asia, Africa and Europe, its impacts on agriculture, and the remedies that need to be deployed to rectify the situation. The use of untreated wastewater in irrigation and poor animal waste management, for instance, contribute to soil pollution in farming communities. One of the risks with these pollutants is that they can affect humans if they are exposed (ingesting, inhaling etc) to harmful contaminants from the surrounding soil. A solution to this, as outlined by the report, is to treat water used in irrigation and to remove dangerous animal waste from crop growing areas.

The negative effects of soil degradation across the continent are highlighted in Soil Atlas of Africa; a publication from the European Commission, which also sets out the primary functions of soil in Africa. This enduring publication also outlines the fact that many farmers in Africa have to maintain their soil’s fertility through the use of crop rotation or mineral fertilisers. However, challenging economic and social conditions, such as poverty or natural disasters, can often mean that these techniques are neglected or not adopted, resulting in reduced soil fertility and low yields.

The effects of saline build-up on agricultural land is detailed in another publication from FAO; Handbook for Saline Soil Management. Whilst this book primarily focuses on soil in Eurasia, the guidelines are relevant to saline affected soils in Africa. This type of soil degradation is also linked to inappropriate agricultural practices, including the over-irrigation of land, which deteriorates the soil’s ability to act as a filter against pollutants. The saline disturbs the soil’s participation in the water and nitrogen cycles, which has adverse effects on the surrounding ecosystem. One method of ameliorating this issue is to apply chemicals, such as sulphuric acid solution, to the effected land to eradicate the accumulation of saline in the soil.

The issue of soil pollution demands different solutions for differing problems. As the literature states, soil management is vital for protecting agricultural productivity and preventing hunger, worldwide. If problems such as agrochemical spills and poor waste disposal are not curbed, the visibility of soil pollution and its impacts for soil fertility, agriculture and human health will come to the fore.

Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality  
By N Rodríguez Eugenio, M McLaughlin & D Pennock 
FAO, 2018; 142 pp.  
ISBN 978-92-5130-505-8 
Downloadable as a PDF file from:

Soil Atlas of Africa  
By A Jones, H Breuning-Madsen, M Brossard et al.  
European Commission, 2013; 176 pp. 
ISBN 978-92-7926-715-4 
Downloadable as a PDF file from:

Handbook for Saline Soil Management 
By R Vargas, E I Pankova, S A Balyuk et al
FAO, 2018; 132 pp. 
ISBN 978-92-5130-141-8 
Downloadable as a PDF file from:

Alex Miller

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.