Erosion, desertification and carbon loss, land degradation in Italy

The Report on soil health in Italy was presented, created by Re Soil Foundation in collaboration with representatives of the Joint Research Center, Ispra, Crea and the various soil companies

For every 100 square meters of land, 47 show some form of degradation. 80% of agricultural land, equal to 23% of the national territory, is subjected to erosive phenomena and 68% has lost more than 60% of the organic carbon originally present in them. And then there is the problem of contamination: contamination from high quantities of copper concerns 14% of the Italian surface, while 1% has high concentrations of mercury. These are some of the numbers contained in the first edition of Report ‘Italian soil in the time of the climate crisis’. A photograph that highlights, a few days before FAO’s World Soil Day, how complex the soil problem is.

“Soil degradation represents a serious threat to the planet – he warns Maurizio Martina, FAO deputy director general in the preface of the report – In fact, a series of ecosystem services fundamental to human well-being depend on soils, such as the protection of the environment and biodiversity, the protection of the landscape, architecture and urban processes, as well as agricultural activities. 95% of global food is produced directly or indirectly from the soil. At the current rate of erosion it is estimated that around 90% of soils will be at risk by 2050. Without a reversal of the trend, we could lose all fertile and arable land within the next 60 years”.

The idea of ​​the report comes from Re Soil Foundation, a foundation created by the University of Bologna, the Polytechnic of Turin, Coldiretti and Novamont. But the publication is a multi-handed effort, made possible by the involvement of the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, Crea (Council for Agricultural Research and Economics), Ispra (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research), Ministry of ‘Environment and University of Bologna.

“Land degradation Cinderella of environmental emergencies”

“The Land degradation is still the Cinderella of environmental emergencies today. Its underestimation represents an obstacle to the adoption of the essential measures to reverse the trend and bring Italian soils back to health – explains Giulia Gregori, member of the Board of Directors of Re Soil Foundation – With this publication we have therefore tried to bring together the most up-to-date data and complete at our disposal. The dimensions and implications of the soil emergency are obviously well known by professionals, but are less so among information operators, public decision makers and public opinion. In this way we hope to help raise attention on this problem which already today has serious and multifaceted impacts and therefore requires to be addressed through a holistic approach that involves all the skills and virtuous experiences that revolve around the Planet-soil”.

Organic carbon continues to decline

“The lack of organic substance – explains Claudio Ciavatta, full professor of Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Bologna – affects territories from north to south of Italy. I am Particularly affected are some areas of Piedmont in the Cuneo area, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, Basilicata, most of the territories of Sicily and part of Sardinia. A harmful situation from both an agronomic and environmental point of view.”

Erosion and desertification

“The mechanization of cultivation operations and the use of unsustainable agronomic practices, such as nitrogen fertilization and excessively deep tillage, combined with man’s failure to protect the territory, have led to the loss of 135 of the 677 gigatons of carbon stored in the world’s soils – recalls Giuseppe Corti, director of Agriculture and Environment of Crea (Council for Agricultural Research and Economics) in the report – All this has accentuated the phenomenon of erosion. In Italy, annual soil losses are more than 10 tonnes per hectare per year. But in some territories, they even exceed 100 T/ha. This is equivalent to the removal of a thickness of soil between 1 and 10 millimeters per year”.

Loss of organic carbon and erosion are among the most relevant phenomena of degradation, which at its maximum level presents itself as desertification, with the total loss of ecosystem services. “The regions most at risk in this case are those in which the high unsustainable use of land is associated with a scarcity of water resources – explains Francesca Assennato, head of the monitoring and integrated analysis of land use, territorial transformations area and desertification processes of Ispra – Let us think first of all of our southern regions. But the different distribution of available quantities over the year caused by climate change puts our entire territory in danger.”


Artificial land cover – Michele Munafò, head of the Service for the National Environmental Information System of Ispra, recalled during the conference – it reached 7.14% of the national territory. The EU average is 4.2%. But in Lombardy, Veneto and Campania, three of the most fertile areas of the country, waterproofing has already exceeded 10%. In the provinces of Monza, Naples and Milan the figure is well over 30%. Furthermore, urban soils are those in which land consumption has intensified the most in recent years. Precious permeable areas have thus disappeared, worsening the damage from flooding and heat waves.”