11 Causes of Soil Degradation

Though the clear evidence of soil degradation, the causes of soil degradation are still in occurrence. Virtually everywhere you go in the world today, people though seeing the effects of soil degradation still added to the causes of soil degradation. This has made soil degradation to become a major environmental problem.

Soil is a valuable, non-renewable resource that supports tens of thousands of animals, plants, and other vital species. It sustains numerous ecosystems while also providing humans with vital food and materials. The dirt beneath our feet is often overlooked, but it is essential to the survival of all species on Earth.

‘Soil is full of millions of living species that interact with one another,’ says Silvia Pressel, a Museum researcher in the Algae, Fungi, and Plants Division. These organisms have a significant impact on the development, structure, and productivity of the soil.’

However, our soil is dying. In our fight for climate action, we often focus on issues such as fossil fuels or water, leaving soil quality in the dust. It takes 500 years to naturally build an inch of topsoil, and we are losing it at 17 times that rate. Although the causes of soil degradation include a variety of natural factors, human actions are increasingly affecting soil quality.

What is Soil Degradation?

Soil degradation is a global issue defined as “a change in soil health status resulting in a reduced ability of the ecosystem to offer goods and services to its beneficiaries.” Many individuals are aware of the concept of soil degradation, but many are unaware of its precise description.

To close this information gap, soil degradation is defined as a decrease in soil quality caused by factors such as inefficient land use, agriculture, and pasture, as well as urban and industrial reasons. It entails the deterioration of the physical, biological, and chemical status of the soil.

Soil degradation refers to the loss of a land’s productive capacity as measured by soil fertility, biodiversity, and deterioration, all of which result in the reduction or extinction of essential ecosystem processes. Soil degradation is the deterioration of soil conditions as a result of poor land use or management.

All terrestrial life is dependent on soil. The upper skin of the Earth provides fertility to trees and crops. It is also one of the greatest carbon sinks on the planet. Soil degradation occurs when the quality of the soil deteriorates, reducing its ability to support animals and plants. Soil can lose physical, chemical, or biological properties that support the web of life that exists within it.

Soil degradation includes soil erosion. It occurs when topsoil and nutrients are lost owing to natural causes such as wind erosion or human-caused causes such as inadequate land management.

According to a recent United Nations assessment, about one-third of the world’s arable land has vanished in the last four decades. It was also reported that if current rates of loss continue, all of the world’s topsoil might become unproductive within 60 years.

Soil degradation affects the world’s food supply by causing 36–75 billion tons of land depletion and freshwater shortages each year. Soil is a fundamental component that must be healthy for the ecosystem to be diverse and sustained.

Types of Soil Degradation

Soil degradation is divided into four categories:

  • Water Erosion
  • Wind Erosion
  • Chemical Deterioration
  • Physical Deterioration

1. Water Erosion

Water erosion refers to the separation of soil particles due to splash erosion (produced by raindrops) or the action of rushing water. The factors that influence water erosion are

  • Rainfall
  • Soil Erodibility
  • Slope Gradient
  • Soil Use/Vegetation Cover

1. Rainfall

Raindrops impacting the soil surface can break down soil aggregates and disseminate aggregate material throughout the surface. Raindrop splash and runoff water can easily remove lighter aggregate components including very fine sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. To transport the larger sand and gravel particles, more raindrop energy or runoff may be necessary. When there is extra water on a slope that cannot be absorbed into the soil or trapped on the surface, runoff might occur. If infiltration is impeded owing to soil compaction, crusting, or freezing, the volume of runoff might be increased.

2. Soil Erodibility

Soil erodibility is a measurement of a soil’s ability to withstand erosion based on its physical features. Soils with faster infiltration rates, higher organic matter levels, and enhanced soil structure are more resistant to erosion in general. Silt, very fine sand, and certain clay textured soils are more erodible than sand, sandy loam, and loam-textured soils.

3. Slope Gradient

The steeper a field’s slope, the greater the amount of soil loss due to water erosion. Due to the increased buildup of runoff, soil erosion by water increases as the slope length grows.

4. Soil use

Plant and residue cover shields the soil from raindrop impact and splash slows surface runoff and allows excess surface water to penetrate.

There are four different types of water erosion:

  • Sheet Erosion: Sheet erosion occurs when a uniform layer of soil is eroded from a large region of land.
  • Rill Erosion: This occurs when water runs in extremely narrow channels across the soil surface, causing the abrading impact of carried soil particles to cause the channels to cut deeper into the surface.
  • Gully Erosion: This happens when rills join together to form larger streams. With each subsequent passage of water, they tend to develop deeper, and they might become substantial barriers to agriculture.
  • Bank Erosion: Stream and river banks are eroded as a result of water cutting into them. It can be particularly dangerous during severe floods and cause significant property damage.

2. Wind Erosion

The following elements influence the rate and degree of wind-driven soil erosion:

  • Soil Erodibility: Wind can suspend very small particles and transfer them across long distances. Particles of fine and medium size can be lifted and deposited, whereas coarse particles can be blown across the surface (commonly known as the saltation effect).
  • Roughness of the Soil Surface: Rough or ridged soil surfaces provide less wind resistance. Ridges can be filled in and roughness is worn down by abrasion over time, resulting in a smoother surface that is more vulnerable to the wind.
  • Climate: The extent of soil erosion is directly related to the speed and duration of wind. During droughts, soil moisture levels at the surface can be very low, allowing particles to be released for wind transport.
  • Vegetative Cover: In some areas, the lack of permanent vegetation cover has resulted in considerable wind erosion. The soil that is loose, dry, and naked is the most vulnerable. A suitable network of living windbreaks, together with good tillage, residue management, and crop selection, should provide the most effective vegetative cover for protection.

3. Chemical Deterioration

Loss of nutrients or organic matter, salinization, acidification, soil contamination, and fertility decline are all examples of chemical deterioration as a type of soil degradation. Acidification is caused by the withdrawal of nutrients from soils, which lowers the capacity of soils to sustain plant development and crop production. Salt accumulation, which obstructs water access to plant roots, can cause problems in arid and semi-arid locations. Toxicity in the soil can be caused in a variety of ways.

Chemical deterioration of soils is frequently caused by agricultural overexploitation, which relies primarily on artificial fertilizer harvests to replenish nutrient losses. Artificial fertilizers are frequently unable to balance all nutrients, resulting in soil imbalance. They cannot also restore organic matter, which is necessary for nutritional absorption. Artificial fertilizers can also pollute the environment (e.g., phosphate rock is often radioactively contaminated).

4. Physical Deterioration

Physical deterioration includes soil crusting, sealing, and compaction, and can be produced by a variety of factors such as heavy machinery or animal compaction. This problem exists on all continents, in practically all temperatures and soil physical conditions, but it has become more prevalent as heavy machinery has become more prevalent.

Soil crusting and compaction increase runoff, reduce water infiltration, impede or inhibit plant growth, and leave the surface naked and vulnerable to other types of degradation. Because of the disintegration of soil aggregates, severe crusting of the soil surface might prevent water from entering the soil and seedling emergence.

Causes of Soil Degradation

The following are the causes of soil degradation

1. Biological Factors

Biological factors are one of the causes of soil degradation. Overgrowth of bacteria and fungi in a given region can have a significant impact on soil microbial activity via biochemical reactions, reducing crop production and soil productivity potential. The biological variables have a major impact on the soil’s microbial activity.

2. Deforestation

Deforestation is also one of the causes of soil degradation. Agricultural landscapes are typically made up of forest lands that have been cleared to allow farmers to harvest the land. Deforestation exposes soil minerals by eliminating trees and crop cover, which promotes the availability of humus and litter layers on the soil’s surface, resulting in soil degradation. Because vegetation cover promotes soil binding and formation, its removal has a significant impact on the soil’s aeration, water holding capacity, and biological activity.

When trees are cut down for logging, infiltration rates increase, leaving the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion and toxic accumulation. Logging and slash-and-burn tactics employed by persons who invade forest regions for farming, rendering the soils barren and less fertile in the end, are examples of contributory activities.

3. Agrochemicals

Being one of the causes of soil degradation, pesticides alter the soil’s composition and upset the delicate balance of microorganisms that maintain soil fertility. Agrochemicals can also promote the growth of microorganisms that are dangerous to humans. These frequently end up in our creeks, rivers, and seas, polluting our fish and wreaking havoc on entire marine ecosystems.

Most agricultural procedures that involve the use of fertilizers and pesticides frequently involve misuse or overapplication, resulting in the death of beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that aid in soil formation.

4. Acid Rain

Acid rain is also one of the causes of soil degradation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, acid rain promotes soil damage. The tainted water seeps into forest soils, slowing the growth of trees and other plants. Natural Factors, such as volcanoes, contribute to acid rain, but so do man-made industry emissions.

5. Extension of Cultivation to Marginal Land

Though the extension of cultivation of marginal lands is one of the causes of soil degradation. The utilization of land is expanding day by day as a result of the massive population growth. Although marginal lands are viable for agriculture, they are less fertile and more susceptible to degradation. Steep sloppy lands, shallow or sandy soils, and lands in arid and semi-dry locations are examples of marginal lands.

6. Improper Crop Rotation

Improper crop rotation is also one of the causes of soil degradation. Farmers have embraced intensive cropping patterns of commercial crops in place of more balanced cereal-legume rotations due to land scarcity, population growth, and economic pressure. The area under food crops has dropped during the last two decades, while the area under non-food crops has expanded. Intensive farming depletes the soil by removing huge amounts of nutrients, resulting in a loss of soil fertility.

7. Overgrazing

Being one of the causes of soil degradation, overgrazing contributes significantly to soil erosion and the loss of soil nutrients, as well as topsoil. Overgrazing causes soil erosion by destroying surface crop cover and breaking down soil particles. The conversion of land from a natural environment to grazing land can result in significant rates of erosion, preventing plants from growing.

Areas under grazing land have been substantially deteriorated, according to recent satellite data. Forest soils are also degraded as a result of uncontrolled and indiscriminate grazing on forest land. Overgrazing causes vegetation to vanish, which is one of the primary causes of wind and water erosion in drylands.

8. Mining

Being one of the causes of soil degradation, mining alters the soil’s physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. The physical and chemical qualities of the waste are created to determine the impact of mining on the soil. The top dirt is turned deep inside the dumps, changing the soil profile.

Mining devastates crop cover and releases a slew of harmful compounds, including mercury, into the soil, poisoning it and rendering it useless for any other purpose. Organic matter is essentially non-existent in the erodible layer, and mineral plant nutrients are scarce. According to estimates, mining activities have deteriorated around 0.8 million hectares of soil.

9. Urbanization

Urbanization is also one of the causes of soil degradation. First and foremost, it depletes the vegetative cover of the soil, compacts the soil during building, and changes the drainage pattern. Second, it encases the soil in an impervious layer of concrete, which increases the quantity of surface runoff and hence increases topsoil erosion.

Again, most urban runoff and sediments are heavily contaminated with oil, fuel, and other pollutants. Increased runoff from metropolitan areas also causes significant disruption to nearby watersheds, altering the rate and volume of water flowing through them and depleting them with chemically tainted sediment deposits.

Effects of Soil Degradation

If there are causes of soil degradation then there would be effects of soil degradation. The following are the effects of soil degradation

  • Land Degradation
  • Aridity and Drought
  • Loss of Arable Land
  • Increased Flooding
  • Pollution and Clogging of Waterways

1. Land Degradation

Soil deterioration is one of the most common causes of land degradation, accounting for 84 percent of the world’s shrinking land area. Huge swaths of land are lost each year owing to soil erosion, contamination, and pollution.

Erosion and the usage of chemical fertilizers have badly harmed the quality of about 40% of the world’s agricultural land, preventing it from regenerating. The degradation of soil quality caused by agricultural chemical fertilizers also leads to water and land contamination, decreasing the value of the land on the planet.

2. Aridity and Drought

Drought and aridity are issues that are exacerbated and influenced by soil degradation. The UN recognizes that drought and aridity are anthropogenic generated problems, particularly as a result of soil degradation, as much as it is a concern linked with natural settings in arid and semi-arid countries.

As a result, variables that contribute to soil quality loss, such as overgrazing, inadequate tillage methods, and deforestation, are also major contributors to desertification, which is characterized by droughts and arid conditions. Soil degradation may also result in biodiversity loss in the same context.

3. Loss of Arable Land

Any area that may be utilized to grow crops is referred to as arable land. Many of the techniques used to grow such crops can result in the loss of topsoil and the deterioration of soil properties that make agriculture possible.

Soil quality degradation caused by agrochemicals and soil erosion has resulted in the loss of almost 40% of the world’s agricultural land. The majority of agricultural production strategies result in topsoil erosion and damage to the natural composition of the soil, which makes agriculture possible.

4. Increased Flooding

When soil deterioration causes the physical composition of the land to change, it is usually transformed from its natural landscape. As a result, the changed ground is unable to absorb water, causing flooding to become more common. To put it another way, soil degradation reduces the soil’s natural ability to store water, contributing to an increase in the number of incidents of flooding.

5. Pollution and Clogging of Waterways

The majority of eroded soil, as well as chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in agricultural areas, are discharged into rivers and streams. The sedimentation process can choke waterways over time, causing water scarcity. Agricultural fertilizers and pesticides also harm marine and freshwater ecosystems, limiting domestic water consumption for communities who rely on it for existence.

Solutions to Soil Degradation

There are many causes of soil degradation that have severely deteriorated a third of the world’s soil. What options do we have? Here are a few options for dealing with soil degradation.

  • Curb Industrial Farming
  • Stop Deforestation
  • Replace Goodness
  • Leave Land Alone
  • Land Reclamation
  • Preventing Salinization
  • Conservation Tillage
  • Use Soil-friendly Agricultural Practices
  • Provide Land Management Incentives

1. Curb Industrial Farming

The use of agrochemicals is one of the causes of soil degradation but have led to numerous harvests, and tilling have all increased yields at the expense of sustainability. Responsible land and agricultural control would be beneficial, but we must also be honest about our eating habits. We should consume considerably less sustainably raised, grass-fed meat – if any at all – less dairy, and much more fruit and vegetables, according to the evidence.

2. Stop Deforestation

As one of the causes of soil degradation, it is clearly seen that erosion would occur easily without plant and tree cover. Combating soil deterioration requires long-term forest management and reforestation schemes. Individuals can be sensitized and taught about sustainable forest management and replanting activities as populations rise. Additionally, maintaining the integrity of secured zones can reduce demonstrations dramatically.

To prevent soil degradation, governments, international organizations, and other environmental stakeholders must guarantee that proper measures are in place to make zero net deforestation a reality. Deforestation in Paraguay is reported to have decreased by 65% in the two years following the passage of the country’s Zero Deforestation Law in 2004 – however it remains a major issue in the country.

3. Replace Goodness

Organic farmers who amend the soil with compost and manure replace nutrients while lowering flood danger and capturing carbon. Bio-waste should not be thrown away; instead, it should be used to make organic soil improvers, fertilizers, and grow in, according to proponents of the circular economy. Mineral fertilizers and peat, for example, are fossil-based items that might be replaced with these.

4. Leave Land Alone

Another answer to soil degradation is to leave more area undeveloped, despite the challenges of a growing population: it takes 500 years to build just 2.5cm of topsoil. Land removed from farming would allow soil carbon to regenerate and stabilize. Experts suggest rotating pastured land utilized by the meat and dairy businesses so that less is used at any given time.

5. Land Reclamation

Soil erosion and degradation have largely irreversible consequences. Organic matter in the soil and plant nutrients can still be replaced. Land reclamation would be required to replace the lost mineral matter and organic material in the soil. Land reclamation is a set of operations aimed at replenishing the soil’s critical minerals and organic matter.

This could involve things like adding plant residues to damaged soils and bettering range management. Salt level correction Restoration operations and salinity management can help restore salinized soils. Planting vegetation like trees, vegetables, and flowers over the impacted soils is one of the most basic yet often overlooked ways of land reclamation. Plants serve as protective covers because they help to strengthen the soil by stabilizing the land surface.

6. Preventing Salinization

Just as the old saying goes, “prevention is better than cure,” the same principle applies to addressing the global problem of soil degradation caused by salinization. The costs of preventing salinization are a fraction of the cost of restoring salinized areas. As a result, initiatives like lowering irrigation, planting salt-tolerant crops, and improving irrigation efficiency will have significant payoffs because reclamation projects have no inputs or labor-intensive features. As a result, preventing salinization in the first place is an environmentally responsible way to combat soil degradation.

7. Conservation Tillage

One of the most sustainable strategies to avoid soil quality degradation is to use proper tillage mechanisms. This is also known as conservation tillage, which refers to tillage methods that aim to make only minor changes to the soil’s natural condition while increasing productivity.

Zero-tillage, also known as conservation agriculture, is being tested by a small number of farmers around the world, from Kenya to the Cotswolds. Efforts are focused on ensuring that no bare soil is exposed by planting ‘cover crops’ immediately after harvest. These not only preserve the soil but also return nutrients and plant materials. They also help to keep moisture in hot weather.

8. Use Soil-friendly Agricultural Practices

To make hillside agriculture manageable, terraced farming must be established. Terraces help to avoid erosion while also allowing more water to reach the crops. In addition, full crop cover is required in hillside agriculture fields to keep the soil in place. This can be performed through intercropping, which involves planting two crops in the same field, such as maize or soybean between rows of oil palm trees.

Agroforestry systems, in which a broad collection of crops, including trees, are produced together, can be effective for smallholders. Access to manure boosts the soil’s organic content, which helps to prevent erosion. Finally, rotating between deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops enhances soil structure while also reducing erosion.

9. Provide Land Management Incentives

Although the science of sustainable land management is gaining traction, the socio-economic environment frequently makes implementation challenging. Farmers must be able to afford to adopt sustainable land management. Anti-erosion measures cost on average $500 per hectare, which is a significant expenditure for a farmer.

Governments and banks must assist farms in obtaining loans and installing erosion control measures. This is a win-win situation for the farmer as well as the entire community. The cost of erosion prevention is much less than the cost of land restoration and rehabilitation, which is estimated to be roughly  $1,500–$2,000 per hectare, according to one source. According to another estimate, it might cost up to $15,221 per hectare.

Causes of Soil Degradation – FAQs

What are the effects of soil degradation?

Some of the effects of land degradation as explained above include

  • Land degradation
  • Drought and aridity
  • Loss of arable land
  • Increased flooding
  • Pollution and clogging of waterways


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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.

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