House of Lords Library

Soil Erosion: A Global Challenge

Published Tuesday, January 21, 2020

This House of Lords Library Briefing explores the global challenge of soil erosion and its consequences.

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Soil erosion occurs naturally through climatic conditions, such as heavy rainfall and wind. Heavy rainfall can cause erosion by water hitting the surface of the soil, breaking down and dispersing soil particles within it. Wind can cause soil erosion by whipping up loosened soil particles and carrying larger soil particles along the surface, affecting the topsoil.

Although soil erosion occurs naturally, it is worsened by human activity, such as agriculture and deforestation. For example, the removal of vegetation (plants and trees), which acts as a cover for soil, can increase the extent of surface erosion on soil. Additionally, overgrazing by animals on pastured land can lead to higher rates of erosion, as it can also reduce ground cover.

There are many effects of soil erosion. These include: land degradation; threats to global food security; and increased carbon emissions. Land degradation refers to the reduction or loss of biological or economic productivity on land. This can impact several functions of the ecosystem, including food production and water retention. At present, soil erosion is exacerbating land degradation, with erosion rates higher than formation rates. Soil is unrecoverable in a human lifespan, as it can take up to 1,000 years to produce just 2 to 3 centimetres of soil. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, at least 3.2 billion people are at risk of being negatively affected by land degradation, such as malnutrition and forced migration.

Land degradation as a result of soil erosion also threatens global food security, leading to up to 50 percent losses of crop yields. A 2019 study by the EU’s joint research centre into the estimated cost of soil erosion by water found that worldwide food production was reduced by 33.7 million tonnes, of which 22.5 million tonnes are crops.

Soil erosion also leads to an increase in carbon emissions in the atmosphere. This is because soil erosion leads to the displacement of soil and the organic carbon within it. Erosion allows more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, increasing the effect of climate change.

Measures have been introduced globally to prevent soil erosion. Governments and UN representatives have signalled their commitment to achieving land neutrality and improving planning to minimise soil erosion. Land neutrality is achieved when an area of productive land remains stable or increases in size. In the United Kingdom, the Government has allocated a minimum of £200,000 towards creating metrics on soil, which would allow the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to monitor soil health at farm and national level. The Government also stated that it would be seeking ways to work with farmers to achieve good soil management practices, such as identifying choices for land under cultivation.

Lords Library notes LLN-2020-0020

Author: Eren Waitzman

Topic: Climate change

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