The global impacts of declining soil health

6th July 2021

The introduction of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) has shone a light on the significance of soil health. Often the narrative around climate change and environmental degradation focuses on seemingly more prominent issues, such as carbon emissions and the effect on air quality, or the eradication of biodiverse habitats such as the rainforest, or the increase of natural events like wildfires and storms.

But not all natural capital gets the same press. Stories of soil health, soil erosion, and contamination don’t often make it into the public eye, and yet in so many ways, soil conditions underpin the quality of our environments, our livelihoods, and our economies. With the consequences of soil degradation permeating from the land into the health of populations, it’s essential that we explore and understand the multifaceted impacts of poor soil health.

Sources of poor soil health

Soil health can be influenced by a vast range of activities. As soil connects to so many different natural and man-made processes, there are numerous direct and indirect processes which can influence soil quality, conditions, and overall health and further ecological degradation.

Here are some common sources where contaminants can enter the soil:

  • Pesticides from agriculture
  • Overirrigation
  • Leeching from industrial sites
  • Effluent leakage

Indicators of degraded soil health:

  • Irrigation scheme placement
  • Circular crop fields
  • Degraded water quality
  • Reduced water flow regulation
  • Disrupted vegetation productivity
  • Waterlogging and flooding
  • A decline in crop yield
  • Desertification

“[It is] estimated that the cost of sediment delivery on recreation, water storage facilities, navigation, flooding, water conveyance facilities, and water treatment facilities, among other damages, at $2.2 billion (1980 dollars) annually.” – The National Academies Press (NAP)

What does soil health impact?

Soil supports the entirety of life on earth. It is the platform for ecosystems, vegetation, livestock, and people. If soil health isn’t maintained then the consequences will be widespread, with direct and knock-on effects that can be difficult to rectify. This issue is particularly relevant in regions where soil health or the surrounding ecosystems are already fragile, such as deserts or other hostile environments.

“On a global scale, around 10 – 20% of drylands and 24% of the world’s productive lands are degraded.” – Global Agriculture

Poor soil quality affects land, air and sea. It prevents land from performing its essential functions, disrupting natural ecosystem cycles and affecting human health and lifestyles.

Here are some key elements which are impacted by the quality and condition of soil:

Water quality

Degraded soil cannot absorb water as effectively, meaning more chemical contaminants will leech into the water table and run off into rivers or oceans. Pollutants in soil can also seep into the groundwater which is often a source of public water supplies.

Agriculture and land productivity

Poor soil composition impacts crop yield, reducing our capacity to produce food, livestock, and vegetation. Additionally, viable farmland is an increasingly limited commodity which not only means we have less area to produce agricultural products, but it also means soil is degraded through overuse and mismanagement, increasing the need for sustainable agricultural practices.

“With increasing population growth, the amount of arable land available for each person is continually dropping.” – Global Agriculture

Carbon levels

Soil is a powerful carbon absorber, meaning by using up land or degrading soil conditions we reduce our planet’s capacity to absorb carbon. This is a particular issue concerning man-made carbon which contributes to global warming.

“Soils store more than 4000 billion tonnes of carbon. By way of comparison, the forests store 360 billion tonnes of carbon as woody biomass.” – Global Agriculture 


Declining areas of ‘free’ land limits our ability to expand or develop human living space. In addition, lower capacity for land-based production ultimately means we cannot sustainably support growing populations.

Food chain

Vegetation absorbs contaminants from the soil, which ultimately then makes its way into our food chains through agriculture and livestock farming.

Air quality

Vegetation and soil can help purify air quality by reducing the pollutants present in the atmosphere. If these factors are degraded, then air pollution levels can rise.

Properly managing land and creating approaches that consider soil quality can help mitigate these impacts. By achieving optimal soil health and establishing high quality, sustainable conditions we can benefit everything from agriculture to human health. In addition, sustainable land management practices allow soils to naturally regenerate, meaning we can rely on quality conditions long-term.

The need for soil health monitoring

Monitoring soil health and condition is a crucial element of adopting more sustainable land management practices. It enables users to identify areas that require targeted intervention, monitor change in condition, and understand the impacts of soil degradation.

Improving soil conditions is a responsibility which more organisations need to address. With the onset of governmental and other Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies, various different sectors – such as utilities, mining, and agriculture – must mitigate their impact on soil conditions or else face significant penalties or be subject to business liabilities.

Learn more in our insights

Regulating bodies can equally use soil monitoring techniques to assess which industries are connected with poor soil quality and then use this information to inform policies that counteract this impact.  

This approach also enables organisations to effectively monitor their progress and evidence activities against compliance targets. It can also help to inform green finance strategies and sustainable asset management. 

4EI’s soil monitoring approach is powered by Earth Observation (EO) and remote sensing technology. We use the most advanced technology to not only analyse soil contamination (highlighting soil remediation efforts) and conditions across vast landscapes, but we can also monitor the downstream impacts of these conditions. For example, we can apply EO techniques to the ocean to see how activities originating in soil areas have affected ocean water.

We can help landowners, governments, and industrial organisations to consistently monitor their soil assets and provide essential intelligence for creating new strategies and policies that work to improve soil health and benefit populations.

To learn more about our soil monitoring work get in touch, or view more information on our website. 

by 4EI

4EI provide Applied Earth Intelligence and analytics. We gather evidence-based intelligence about the earth, using data collected through sophisticated space assets.

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