In the Mediterranean region, soils are degrading and land turning into desert faster than anywhere else in the European Union, according to a new analysis.
Experts warn that the combined effects of unsustainable land practices and climate change have depleted a finite resource to a critical point.
A recent publication by a European Commission on soil health revealed that up to 70% of soils in the EU are losing their ability to perform crucial ecological functions.
The shallow soils of the Mediterranean are particularly susceptible to seawater intrusion, erosion, drought and forest fires. In fact, this region has the highest erosion rates in the EU and the lowest levels of soil organic matter.
Meanwhile, the dense populations in this area have also led to sprawling concrete or asphalt streets and soil contamination with heavy metals and pesticides.
When soil is healthy, it stores and drains water. It also produces 95% of the food humans eat. When soil is degraded, its basic life processes do not function properly.
The Mediterranean is prized for its tomatoes, grapes and olives, but this precious diet and economy is proving increasingly difficult to sustain.
Despite this, very little research has been conducted on potential contributors to soil decline in the region.
Many studies included in the review focused on soil degradation through erosion, but only a few considered the effects of biological degradation.
Ants and earthworms are known to help regulate nutrients underground, and their actions support the very integrity of the soil. Have these terrestrial communities changed with human influence? And how does this affect their immediate environment?
We don’t have the answers and we don’t have time to find them.
Droughts have been increasing in the Mediterranean since the 1950s, and they have already forced some farmers to abandon their land, risking desertification. It can also increase the risk of forest fires.
“Changes to agricultural systems, along with other land use changes, lead to critical levels of habitat loss,” the authors write.
“This is all the more worrying as the Mediterranean region is characterized by extraordinary biodiversity, with a large number of endemic species…”
This study, the first to review and summarize the state of soils in the European Mediterranean, highlights that there is still no specific European legislation protecting rural soils against urbanisation. Salinisation is also not addressed in specific EU policies, although a review concluded that it poses a significant threat to soil.
“Globally, there is a general lack of regular systematic assessments of Mediterranean soils, and of formal authority to compile and synthesize the available information,” the authors conclude.
If the EU wants to prevent further soil decline, it must stop treating its soil like dirt.
The study was published in Total Environmental Science.