And soils are home to numerous species, from minute microbes and insects to larger creatures like moles and rabbits.
It takes thousands of years to produce the few centimetres of soil beneath our feet. This means that it is practically non-renewable.
Mankind depends on soil for life, but human activities are taking their toll. Some farming practices make soils vulnerable to erosion. Large areas of very fertile soil are being covered by concrete or asphalt as cities continue to grow. In some regions irrigation has made the soil salty and less fertile.
In some places, industrial processes have contaminated soil with substances such as lead, oil and solvents. This pollutes groundwater, damages human health and harms organisms in the soil. Food quality is affected because crops grown in polluted soils absorb the contaminants, endangering the health of consumers.
The changes in temperature and rainfall that climate change is expected to bring about will make soils increasingly more vulnerable.
Many of the problems are being addressed by EU legislation on water, waste, chemicals, industrial pollution, nature protection and pesticides. The EU also has a comprehensive soil strategy which addresses the threats. The strategy focuses on the causes of soil degradation, and emphasises the need to manage the land sustainably to avoid soils losing their productivity.