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Soil is brown gold in the Emilia-Romagna region, Italy (Land Use Policy, Volume 39, July 2014, Pages 350-357)

Soil is a natural resource essential to human welfare by virtue of its numerous crucial functions. In the past, soil has been taken for granted because of its widespread, albeit finite, availability. However, now that world's population is projected to exceed ten billion before the end of this century, soil is increasingly perceived as a precious commodity.

Consequently, soil is increasingly under pressure by rich private investors and governments within the poorest countries to satisfy appetites for food production and biofuel. A case study is used to explore the plausibility of soil being considered as ‘brown gold’. Based on the comparison of land use maps, we estimated the value in terms of resource from raw material, carbon sink and virtual calories of the productive soil lost during the period 2003–2008 in the Emilia-Romagna Plain, one of the most productive areas of Italy.

More than fifteen thousand hectares of cropland underwent land use change – in particular urbanization – over the 6-year period with an implied loss of crop production potential equivalent to the daily calorific requirement of more than 440,000 people. Taking into account that Italy is no longer self-sufficient in food production, such a loss appears to be strategically significant.

Perhaps more importantly, urbanization and soil sealing has had negative ramifications on environmental sustainability, on both local and broad scales, with increased consumption of public funds. A logical framework of the socio-economic impact of land use change has been compiled and is presented as a possible example of a policy relevant approach to managing productive soils as a finite resource.


- We estimated the value of the productive soil lost in the Emilia-Romagna Plain, Italy.

- The value of the land use changes for the period 2003–2008 at regional scale was 109 euros.

- The agricultural soil losses mean a vanished food security of 440,000 people equivalent per year.

- Local land use change produces massive environmental and economical consequences at wider scale.