The World’s Biggest Problem: Soil Degradation

The United Nations have clearly stated that we only have 40 to 50 harvests left on the planet.

Aditya M
8 min readApr 10, 2022
Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

The world is going to die.

Because the world’s most important resource going to die.

And that is soil

But, how can soil die? Soil isn’t alive.

Nope. Soil is a living thing which keeps us alive.

Soil is not just little bits of sand, silt and clay with some old dead plants mixed in. One handful of healthy natural soil, has around 8 billion to 10 billion micro-organisms, more than there are people on earth. It is because of life in the soil, that allows us to grow our food and survive. It is because of the soil that plants, animals, and life can exist on earth. However, these micro-organisms, which keep the soil alive, are dying, threatening our existence on the planet.

We tend to focus on issues such as fossil fuels or water and our fight for climate action. often the issue of soil quality gets left in the dust. At first glance, it might seem that there is no shortage of mud and dirt around the world. But it’s the quality that really counts. If you add organic content to sand, the sand will turn into soil. But if you remove all organic content from the soil, the soil will become sand. In normal agricultural land, the minimum organic content should be between 3% to 6%. We need at least 3% to keep the soil alive. Annually, however, 27 thousand species of micro-organisms are going extinct, turning rich soil into the sand.

According to the United Nations, every 5 seconds a soccer pitch of land is degraded. To put things in perspective, every ten years, 500,000 km squared of soil is degraded, which is the size of Spain (trust me I did the math). The depletion of agricultural soils around the world is so heavy, that in most countries more than 50% of the topsoil is already gone in the last 100 years.

Try to find some stable soil…

Every scientist is pointing out, and the United Nations have clearly stated that we only have 60 to 80 harvests left on this planet, which is around 50 more years of cultivating food. The scary part is that after 50 years, the nutrients in the soil will be depleted, killing animals and plants from starvation. The human civilization will face complete chaos with civil wars and death. But that is only if we don’t take action.

Soil degradation affects soil health and productivity, which decreases the quantity and quality of the food we eat. The level of micro-nutrients you would get from your food in the early 20th century, to what you are getting from the same food now has dropped 90 percent. If you ate an orange in the 1920s now in 2022 to get the same amount of nutrients, you will need to eat 8 oranges. The degradation can also result in a 50% loss in crop yields. Lack of nutrients in the soil can cause the death of plant tissues or yellowing of the leaves. It creates low-quality food, slow growth, or “disorders” caused by not having needed nutrients.

On top of that, the soil is a non-renewable source, which means, it requires over a lifetime to regenerate itself. It takes an average of 500 years to naturally build an inch of topsoil and we are losing it at 17x that rate. Although soil degradation can be caused by a number of natural factors. Soil quality is mainly caused by human actions. Any human activity that creates an ecological disruption in the soil, can practically not be reversed. For instance, oil spills on farmland, like those in Nigeria, can permanently ruin the soil for life. The number of centuries that will be needed to rehabilitate the site will be countless.

Devastating Oil Spills in Nigeria

People forget to acknowledge that the soil is the basis of human existence. The microbial life in the first 12–15 inches is what sustains 87% of life on this planet, which included humans. If we don’t slow down the rate at which the soil dies, we will reach a point where we cannot grow any more food. Fortunately, however, we are on a cusp of time, where if you do the right things now, in the next 15 to 25 years, we can significantly turn this situation around and regenerate the soil. But if we continue as we are right now, in another 30 to 40 years, attempting to regenerate could take another 150 to 200 years (as a result of extensive biodiversity loss), which simply means death.

Healthy soil is not only important to grow food, but it is also what sustains the planet as a whole. (1) It is the world’s biggest recycling plant, converting all organic waste into black gold, for other life to grow. (2) It is the world’s biggest carbon sink, contributing to slowing down global warming. (3) It is also like a sponge, holding water and preventing runoff and floods. It takes the water that it needs and filters it, as it seeps into the ground, which we use for drinking.

(1) Degraded soil on the other hand doesn’t easily retain water, which can trigger flooding and landslides. (2) It can be displaced through erosion leading to excessive water pollution. (3) It decreases the soil’s potential to mitigate and adapt to climate change. (4) It causes a significant loss of biodiversity, which can affect our daily lives. (5) And it emits large amounts of carbon dioxide. Degraded soil is currently the top contributor to climate change (40%) both directly and indirectly, as 52% of agricultural soils are already degraded. The consequences of degraded soils are simply unimaginable.

But why is the soil degrading at such a rate? There are many reasons, almost all of them resulting from human activity (you guessed it). One by one, we are killing the same thing that keeps us alive. Here are the top 2 reasons.

Modern Intensive Agriculture
  • Intensive agriculture
    In earlier times, we used a crop rotation method, so that the soil would get a chance to recover. Farmers would choose their crops wisely in a way that two crops that require different nutrients from the soil are grown together. This made sure that the soil didn’t get depleted and got enough time to replenish its nutrients. But today, with mono-cropping and focusing solely on cash crops, the soil is suffering from a decline in nutrients/organic matter. Current practices, accelerate surface runoff and soil erosion and disrupts cycles of water. On top of that, pesticides and chemicals in the process kill microbes in the soil. Considering that 38% of the global land surface is used for agriculture, the effects of intensive farming on the world are significant.
Photo by Dave Herring on Unsplash
  • Deforestation/Industry
    Trees and their roots provide the soil with an anchor and a shelter from the wind, the rain, and the sun. When forests are wiped out, the land becomes exposed, leaving it vulnerable to being washed away, blown away, or dehydrated (leading to droughts). Globally we deforest around ten million hectares of forest every year, around the size of Portugal. Also, industries, in general, are creating loads of ecological disruptions around the world, from oil spills to mining resources, which kill the life in the soil.

The effects of global soil degradation are frightening. By 2050, the world population will be 9 billion people, which means we will need to generate 1.5x more food than we are generating today. But as our soil’s fertility is decreasing, in the coming 25 years, the world will have 40% less food. As a result, it is expected that 3 in 10 people will starve to death. Innovation and policies are becoming urgent by the day.

According to the United Nations, over 1.3 billion people live on degraded agricultural land, and most vulnerable populations tend to lack secure access to land as well as control over land’s resources. Therefore, people are looking at migration as an important livelihood strategy available to households to cope with environmental changes and relieve themselves from economic pressures.

For example, the current desertification of lands in Africa is forcing people who can no longer make a living from farming, to migrate to urban areas. According to the United Nation’s Population Division, the population of Lagos, Nigeria, will grow by 50%. from 13.4 million as a result of immigrating rural families.

In summary, the soil crisis leads to:

  • Food Crisis
    Food production for 9.3 billion people is predicted to be 40% lower in 20 years. Nutritional value in food will suffer as a result of degraded soils. Today’s fruits and vegetables already have 90 percent fewer nutrients than those in the early 1900s. 2 billion people suffer from nutritional deficiencies, which can lead to diseases.
  • Water Scarcity
    Depleted soils can’t absorb and regulate water flow. Water scarcity, droughts, and floods are caused by a lack of water absorption in soil.
  • Loss of Biodiversity
    27000 species of microbes are going extinct each year. The crisis has reached a point where 80% of insects have vanished. This loss of biodiversity further prevents soil degeneration.
  • Climate Change
    Soil is crucial for natural carbon storage. It balances the carbon content in the atmosphere and slows down the rate of global warming. There is 3x more carbon stored in soil than there is in plants and 2x more carbon stored in the atmosphere. If soil is not protected, it could emit 850 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
  • Loss of Livelihood
    Thousands of farmers are committing suicide due to a lack of profits as a result of degraded soil and 74% of the poor are directly affected by the crisis. The soil crisis is costing the world over 10 trillion dollars annually.
  • Conflict and Migration
    Growing populations, meeting with food and water scarcity, could cause over 1 billion to migrate to other countries in 28 years. 90% of major wars and conflicts in Africa since 1990 are caused by degrading soils. Think about it. 💭 The French Revolution was caused by unaffordable food prices.

Now imagine, in your state/country, not having any food. No food in the grocery store, no food in your fridge, and no food anywhere that is accessible. What would you do? other than migration? It is expected that in such a situation, the world will become chaotic. But like always, we still have hope

This short article has proved to you that soil is the most important resource on earth that keeps us alive. Soil degradation is an urgent problem, and we only have a couple of decades left. The 🕗 is ticking.

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Aditya M

15 y/o student with a vision of making a difference in the world. Looking to learn at labs!