cow with calf

World Soil Day: why is soil health important for animal welfare?

Soils are the foundation for sustainable food systems and essential for animal welfare. But our soils are degrading fast. 


Today is once again World Soil Day. If last year our post to commemorate this day aimed at explaining how animal farming is the leading cause of land degradation, this year we want to explore why this issue is relevant for animal welfare.  

Let’s start by looking into one of the most polluting consequences of the agricultural industry: nitrogen pollution.  

To keep up with the demand for feed from the intensive animal farming sector, the industry is systematically reliant on nitrogen-based fertilizers that contribute to the increase of ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxide (N2O) levels. While nitrous oxide is a GHG (Greenhouse Gas) around 300 more dangerous than CO2 (carbon dioxide) in terms of global warming, ammonia has serious consequences for human and animal health. Furthermore, intensive animal farming also contributes to raise ammonia levels by producing excessive amounts of manure. Ammonia emissions are particularly high in concentrated animal feeding operations where large numbers of animals are housed in confined spaces. 

In both humans and animals, ammonia can cause skin irritation and dangerous respiratory diseases and infections, which are amplified due to the characteristics of intensive farming models. In these models, pigs, poultry and ruminants often suffer from respiratory ailments due to prolonged exposure to elevated ammonia levels. In pigs, changes in behaviour may manifest as indicators of discomfort, stress, and compromised health. This alteration in behaviour is not merely a symptom; it is a distress signal that shouldn't be ignored. Ammonia poisoning is another awful reality for pigs in intensive farming settings.  

Poultry, too, face dire consequences, notably in the form of “Foot-pad dermatitis”, a major welfare concern for broilers. This condition, equivalent to ammonia burns, is a result of the high ammonia content in the litter. The intricate interplay of factors such as high stocking density and increased moisture in the litter amplifies the production of ammonia, rendering the chickens susceptible to foot injuries. Foot-pad dermatitis not only causes physical pain but also compromises the mobility of the animals, robbing them of the most basic expression of their natural behaviours. 

chicken with foot injury

Chicken in factory farm with growth problems and foot injuries

At this point, we should remember the consequences for soil health of ammonia and nitrogen pollution, which show how the ramifications of intensive animal farming go beyond animal welfare and climate change concerns. Ammonia, released into the environment, contributes to soil degradation, disrupting its delicate balance and fertility. This, in turn, perpetuates a cycle of environmental decline, as unhealthy soil struggles to support crops, needing more artificial fertilizers which cause more soil health decline.  

Soil health is the foundation for sustainable food systems. It serves as the fundamental resource supplying nutrients to our crops, sequestering carbon, and safeguarding water quality. However, soil health faces challenges from intensive agricultural practices, deforestation, and urbanization. 

Preserving our soils is vital as they constitute a precious natural resource. The implementation of sustainable land management practices, including cover cropping, organic matter application, and conservation tillage, proves instrumental in revitalizing soil health and elevating its productivity. 

This is why, the EU Soil Monitoring Law currently being discussed must take seriously into account factory farming. To start addressing this issue, a first step would be to include nitrogen in soil as a descriptor for soil health. Together with that, setting binding and intermediate targets as well as measures to promote agroecological principles and sustainable extensive farming practices are needed. 

Miguel Angel Zhan Dai

Miguel Angel Zhan Dai

Climate Policy Officer

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