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Land and soil

Land provides space and resources for the functioning of man and economic development. It is indispensable for various production processes (among others farming of plants or resources extraction), as well as for the arrangement of various socio-economic activities (among others construction of road-, industrial-, services- and housing infrastructure). Human impact involving the change of spatial layout is a multidimentional phenomenon which often results in the transformation of landscape, fragmentation of ecosystems and natural habitats, pollution of air and waters, loss of the soil functions.

Soil protection is of particular importance, as it plays various functions, both natural ones, as well as socio-economic and cultural ones. It is a source of food, biomass and resources. It serves as a platform for the activities of man and constitutes a natural habitat for many organisms, its is also a place where genetic resources are stored. Soil stores, filtrates and processes many substances, including water, nutrients and carbon. It is one of the most important carbon store in nature.


Priority objectives related to the protection of soils and earth surface include:
1. Preventing further soil degradation and preserving of its functions;
2. Restoring damaged soil to a level of functionality consistent at least with current and intended use,
in: “Thematic strategy for soil protection“


Agricultural land having the largest share in the country's area covered 19 025 thousand hectares in 2008 (Fig. 4.3.1.). This significant share (60.8%) results both from conducive conditions of the natural environment for agriculture, as well as less intensive economic development in comparison to the Western European countries.

The structure of land used for farming purposes is dominated by arable land which covers more than 14 000 thousand hectares (more than 70% of agricultural land). Permanent meadows also have a significant share, as they cover ca 2 300 thousand hectares (12.3% of agricultural land) (Fig. 4.3.2.). Directions of agricultural development of land are strongly diversified depending on the region and they result both from varying agricultural and environmental conditions, as well as from diversified socio-economic development.

Observing the changes in the directions of use of land in the country in 1999-2008 one may conclude that the area of woodland, as well as afforested and shrubbed land has been successively increasing (more than 1% share increase), while at the same time the area of agriculture land has been decreasing from 2004 onwards (0.7% share decrease). The process of shrinking agriculture land area is mainly related to the development of the area of fallow- and idle land which are being successively afforested.

Fig. 4.3.1. Percentage share of individual groups of land use in 2008 (source: CSO)

Fig. 4.3.2. Directions of country's area use as regards area used as farmland in 2008 (source:  CSO)

Urbanized and build-up areas covered 1 511 thousand hectares in 2008, which accounts for ca 4.8% of the country's area. Their dominant group included communication areas (in particular areas covered by roads) and residential areas. Their area was 887 thousand hectares and 594 thousand hectares in 2008 respectively.

Residential areas which include housing-, industrial-, other build-up-, urbanized unbuilt-, recreational and leisure areas, as well as communication areas are mainly located in urban and suburbian areas of big cities which have seen the progress of suburbanization, as well as in industrialized areas.

Area of urbanized and build-up areas in 2003-2008 increased by 3.6%.

Fig. 4.3.3. CORINE Land Cover 2006 - map of land cover/use in Poland (source: CIEP/SEM)


Tracing of changes in land cover/use at a European and national level is made possible by CORINE Land Cover (CLC) databases, which are based on a common European methodology and CLC classification. Data concerning land cover are obtained on the basis of satellite image interpretation and mapping and constitute a spatial data source. Thematic scope of CLC Program as well as level of  accuracy of gathered data is mostly fitted to EU institutions needs. CLC nomenclature of land cover includes all categories of land cover occurring at European continent.


Results of CORINE Land Cover 2006 show that domestic land cover is dominated by agricultural areas (62.7% of country's area), with the largest share of arable land (44.5% of country's area), as well as forests and seminatural areas (31.2%) with a dominant share of forests (30.1% of country's area). Artificial surfaces cover 4% of the country's area. Urban fabric was dominant in this category (3.2% of country's area) (Fig. 4.3.3.).

Working out databases on land cover for reference years 1990, 2000 and 2006 under CORINE Land Cover projects made it possible to determine the main directions of change of land cover in Poland in the periods 1990-2000 and 2000-2006. In both analyzed periods the changes in land cover in Poland were relatively small, as they did not exceed 1% of the country's area, covering 0.8% (2 544 km2) and 0.5% (1 821 km2) of Poland's territory respectively. However, their dynamics, directions and spatial arrangement were different.

Fig. 4.3.4. Land cover in 2000 and 2006 based on the results of CLC2006 project (source: CIEP/SEM)

[percentage share / land cover categories]

Changes in 1990-2000 mainly involved an increase of afforested areas, surface mining areas and areas used for discontinuous development, and to a much lesser extent industrial- and commercial areas, as well as communication areas. The area of these forms of land cover increased mainly at a cost of reduced area of arable land, meadows and pastures. In the analyzed period there were no changes in the area of continuous development, which should be explained by the fact that the development of construction industry and construction of many new buildings occurred in those areas, causing more dense development, without  increasing its area.

In the period 2000-2006 more than 60% of all observed changes concerned forest areas, which are marked with areas of wood exploitation and areas of big natural disasters (windfalls). Changes in agricultural areas were ranked second in terms of area - a total of 30% of changes. Changes on areas artificial surfaces accounted for slightly more than 8% of all changes. The remaining forms of coverage saw no major area changes in the analyzed period (Fig. 4.3.4. and Fig. 4.3.5.).

In 2000-2006 there was sa significant increase in the share of areas related to transport and its infrastructure, which accounted for 15.96% of newly established areas artificial surfaces. In 1990-2000 areas used by transport increased by only 2.36%. Also the share of residential development surface with green areas shrunk from 22.4% in 1990-2000 to 17.77% in 2000-2006. In the years 2000-2006 there was a 2.2%  increase in the share of industrial areas vis-a-vis 1990-2000.

Fig. 4.3.5. Distribution of individual land cover categories in the newly-established anthropogenic areas, based on CLC_changes 90-00 and CLC_changes 00-06 (source: CLC_changes 90-00 - CIEP/SEM and IGC, CLC_changes 00-06 – CIEP/SEM)

Upon analysing data related to changes in land cover in Europe, one may conclude that in Poland the changes apply to a much smaller area, and their speed is slower than in many other European countries. This applies in particular to such indicators as the share of areas used for transport and communication, development of areas artificial surfaces, fragmentation of forests and areas used by agriculture.  In 1990-2000 the changes in land cover below 1% of the country's area were recorded only in Austria and Slovenia, apart from Poland.

In Poland soils are mainly lessive, brown, podzolized and rusty, generated mainly from postglacial formations. Among hydrogenic (wetland) ecosystems, referred to as boggy, peat (organic) soils are in the majority.

Forest- and meadow soils have largely kept their natural properties. However, the properties of arable land, as well as urban and industrial areas were changed to a large extent, as a result the adjustment of their properties to the requirements of arable crops or as a result of non-agricultural activities.

Soils in Poland are mainly characterized by an average or low agricultural usability (IV, V and VI soil valuation classes), usually they are light soils, generated from sands, covering ca 74% of farmland. There is a general opinion, that class VI arable land, as well as a vast part of the poorest class V soils should not be used for agricultural purposes due to their low yield and high susceptibility to degradation. They should be subjected to afforestation instead. Soils of high useful quality (I, II and II soil valuation classes) cover 26% of all farmland. They include: lessive soils, silt and loam soils, medium firm soils, rich in humus.

Since the quality of soils has impact on the quality of agricultural crops and food, the monitoring of arable land were included in the system of the state environmental monitoring. The existing results (from three measurement cycles in: 1995, 2000 and 2005) show that there were no significant changes in the properties of soils, in particular negative ones (impoverishment and degradation). However, the changes do not have any major impact on the agricultural usability of soils. A vast majority of arable land (more than 96%) is characterized by a natural or slightly increased content of heavy metals (cadmium, copper, nickel, lead, zinc). (Fig. 4.3.6.).

Fig. 4.3.6. Pollution of soils with heavy metal (percentage of samples) (source: CIEP/SEM)

In terms of the contents of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, 76% of arable land can be considered non-polluted, while 24% - polluted in a low and medium grade. None of the monitored soils had a high or very high level of pollutants.

The quality of soils is influenced by many factors. Some have a supra-local range (such as agricultural activities or deposition of pollutants from precipitation), others have a very limited area of impact (among others industrial facilities, landfills). Another important problem involves soils sealing which leads to an increased surface run-off, mainly due to urbanization and development of transport infrastructure. In practice the impact of these factors adds up, causing degradation and devastation of soils.

The influence of agricultural activity on the quality of soils involves improper use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, as well as improper agrotechnical activities. Poland is a country with a relatively low use of mineral fertilizers (NPK) and pesticides. In 1998-2003 the use of mineral fertilizers maintained at a comparable level of ca 93 kg/ha. Their usage has grown from 2004 to ca. 130 kg/ha (Fig. 4.3.7).

Fig. 4.3.7. Consumption of mineral and lime fertilizers in Poland in 1998-2008 (source: CSO)

Purchase of plant protection products in 1998-2001 was at a comparable level of ca. 8 500 tons. In 2002 there was a slight growth, and over the next two years a fall in the purchase of plant protection products in Poland. In the period 2005 - 2008 there was a significant increase in the purchase of plant protection products from ca 16 000 tons in 2005 to 20 000 tons in 2008 (Fig. 4.3.8.). The increase of plant protection products purchase results from admission into turnover and use all products (ca 1000) according to EU requirements.

Fig. 4.3.8. Purchase of plant protection products in 1998-2008 in tons of active substance (source: CSO)

In 1998 - 2008 the area converted for non-agricultural and non-forest purposes from agricultural land and forest land tripled  (Fig. 4.3.9.).

Fig. 4.3.9. Agricultural and forest lands converted for non-agricultural and non-forest purposes in 1995-2008 (source: CSO)

Among agricultural and forest lands converted for non-agricultural and non-forest purposes by directions of conversion, areas which were converted for residential purposes had the largest share – 3 205 hectares (Fig. 4.3.10). In 2008 they accounted for almost 50% of all conversions. The next biggest share involved land converted for other purposes 1 123 hectares, land converted for industrial purposes - 925 hectares and for surface mining use - 572 hectares.

Fig. 4.3.10. Agricultual and forest land converted for non-agricultural and non-forest purposes by directions of conversion (excluding agricultural land converted for the purpose of afforestation and increasing stand density) (source: CSO)

Land is subject to protection based on the act on 27 April 2001 - Environmental Protection Law. The protection involves a multitude of activities aimed at maintaining a high quality of land via its rational use, management, maintenance of natural values and possibilities of use for production, limiting the changes of the natural shape, maintaining the quality of soil and ground above or at least at the level of the required standards, ensuring that the quality of soil and ground meets the required standards whenever they are not met, maintaining cultural values, taking account of the archaeological cultural artefacts.

The act on the protection of arable and forest land on 3 February 1995 provides for the principles of their protection, as well as reclamation and improvement of the useful value. Pursuant to the law in force, land protection involves:

  • limiting their conversion for non-agricultural or non-forest purposes,
  • preventing the processes of their degradation and devastation,
  • counteracting negative effects of non-agricultural activity which reduces the yield potential of soils,
  • reclamation and development of land for agricultural purposes,
  • maintaining peat lands and small ponds as natural water basins.

An important element of the protection of soils involves limiting the release of pollutants by the industry and municipal sector, including proper waste management, as well as use of the poorest soils for industrial purposes and for development of communication infrastructure.

Protection of soils from agricultural pressure means moderate use of mineral fertilizers and plant protection products, as well as implementation of agricultural production methods which follow the principles of sustainable farming and Code of good farming practices.

A special way of farming involves organic farming, which is a system of sustainable plant and animal production within an agricultural holding, based on biological and mineral resources which were not subjected to technological processing. The basic principle involves rejection of agricultural-, veterinary- and food chemistry agents in the process of food production. In 2008 there were almost 15 000 organic farms in Poland (certified and in the course of conversion), covering a total of 315 thousand hectares, which accounted for 1.65% of the area of arable land.  In the analyzed period the area of organic farms grew almost 60-fold (Fig. 4.3.11.). A particularly intensive increase in organic farming occurred after 2004. It is related to the effective implementation of agricultural and environmental programmes, as well as increasing environmental awareness, which results in the consistently growing demand for organic food. In spite of their intensive growth, the share of organic farms in the area of agriculture land remains much lower than the EU average (4.3%).

Fig. 4.3.11. Organic farms in Poland in the years 1998-2008 (source: AFQI)




More than 90% of the country's area is used for agriculture or forestry. Changes in land use observed over the past decade have been insignificant. The area of urbanized and build-up areas has been growing, and the phenomenon of suburbization can be observed around big city agglomerations.

More than 96% of arable land is characterlized by natural or slightly increased content of heavy metals, which qualifies it as high-quality soil that can be used for the production of safe food. There have been no major changes in the quality of soils, which could have a significant impact on their usefulness for the production of food.

There has been a satisfactory growth of the share of organic farms in the area of agricultural land, although this value sill remains lower than the EU average.