In the Mediterranean region, the soil is degrading, and land is turning to 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 found up to 70 percent of soils in the EU were losing the capacity to provide crucial ecological functions.
The shallow soils of the Mediterranean are particularly susceptible to seawater intrusion, erosion, drought, and wildfires. In fact, this region has the highest erosion rates in the EU and the lowest levels of soil organic matter.
Meanwhile, dense populations in this region have also led to sprawling streets of concrete or asphalt and ground contamination with heavy metals and pesticides.
When soil is healthy, it stores and drains water. It also grows 95 percent of the food humans eat. When soil is degraded, its basic life-giving processes don't function properly.
The Mediterranean is prized for its tomatoes, grapes, and olives, but that precious diet and economy are proving harder and harder to support.
Despite this, very little research has been done on the potential contributors of soil decline in the region.
Many studies included in the review focused on soil degradation by erosion, but only a few considered the effects of biological degradation.
Ants and earthworms are known to help regulate nutrients below ground, and their actions support the very integrity of the soil. Have these ground-dwelling communities changed with human influence? And how is that impacting their surrounding environment?
We don't have the answers, and we are running out of time to find them.
Droughts have been increasing in the Mediterranean since the 1950s, and it's already forced some farmers to abandon their land, risking desertification. This can also increase the chance of wildfires.
"Changes to agricultural systems, together with other land-use changes, are leading to critical levels of habitat loss," the authors write.
"This is a particular concern since the Mediterranean region is characterized by extraordinary biodiversity, with large numbers of endemic species… "
This study, the first to review and summarize the state of soil in the European Mediterranean, points out that there is still no specific EU legislation protecting rural soils from being urbanized. Nor is salinization addressed in specific EU policies, despite review finding it a significant threat to the soil.
"Overall, there is a general lack of regular systematic assessments of Mediterranean soils, and of a formal authority to compile and synthesize available information," the authors conclude.
If the EU is to prevent further soil decline, it needs to stop treating its ground like dirt.
The study was published in Science of the Total Environment.