Soils are also the largest active store of carbon, after the oceans, and therefore crucial in fighting the climate crisis. But the report said industrial pollution, mining, farming and poor waste management are poisoning soils, with the “polluter pays” principle absent in many countries.
Pollutants include metals, cyanides, DDT and other pesticides, and long-lasting organic chemicals such as PCBs, the report said, making food and water unsafe, cutting the productivity of fields and harming wildlife. However, it said most releases of pollutants that end up in soils are not easily quantified and therefore the true damage remains highly uncertain.
The global production of industrial chemicals each year has doubled since 2000 to 2.3bn tonnes, the report said, and is projected to nearly double again by 2030, meaning soil pollution is expected to increase further. The UN also warns of emerging contaminants including pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials that lead to drug-resistant bacteria, and plastics.
“Global soils are under great pressure,” said Qu Dongyu, head of the UN food and agriculture organisation. “This thin crust of the Earth’s surface, the soil, supports all terrestrial life and is involved in many key ecosystem services that are essential to the environment and to human health and wellbeing.”
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.