Written by Astrid Klaver, Ana Martínez Juan and Maria Kollarova
The United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils . Its aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and ecosystem functions. The organisation is in the hands of the Global Soil Partnership , a partnership between international, national and regional organizations that are working on soil protection (including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre). 5 December has been declared World Soil Day but many more events and conferences are taking place throughout the year.
Soil plays a fundamental role in the supply of water and stores more carbon than the rainforests. Moreover, soil hosts about a quarter of Earth’s biodiversity. It is, however, estimated that around 33% of global soils are degraded. There are many threats that might degrade soil. Compaction by heavy machinery, contamination by industrialisation, erosion by water and wind, landslides by land abandonment and land-use change, organic matter decline caused by changing to crops, salinization by irrigation water and fertiliser use, sealing through urbanisation, biodiversity decline and climate change all cause damage to soil. Meanwhile, it can take hundreds of years to produce 1cm of soil.
EU measures for soil protection
Different policies contribute to the protection of the soil, such as the policies on agriculture, environment, chemicals, industrial pollution, nature protection, pesticides, waste and water. Cross-compliance under the Common Agricultural Policy requires farmers who receive direct payments to keep their farmland in good agricultural and environmental condition ( GAEC ). Member States set the exact GAEC standards for minimum soil cover, minimum land management to limit erosion and for maintaining soil organic matter. Greening measures like permanent grassland and ecological focus areas enhance soil biodiversity. Concerning rural development, soil is listed under point 4 of the Union priorities for rural development ( Regulation (EU) No 1305/2013, Article 5 ), which names preventing soil erosion and improving soil management as two of its focus areas.
Europe’s Soil Thematic Strategy ( COM(2006)231 ) lays down a common framework to protect soil. The report on the Implementation of the Soil Thematic Strategy and ongoing activities ( COM(2012)46 ) was published in 2012. The proposed Framework Directive on Soil was withdrawn by the Commission on 21 May 2014 but the Commission remains committed to the objective of the protection of soil. In the context of the 2015 International Year of Soils the Commission plans to continue the implementation of the Thematic Strategy and discuss with Member States and stakeholders how to best implement the commitments on soil of the 7th Environment Action Programme to 2020 . Soil is also a topic in the Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe ( COM(2011)571 ).
Related EPRS publications:
Briefing on Ecosystem services: Valuing our natural capital / D. Bourguignon, DG EPRS, 2015, 7 p.
Blogpost on Sustainable management of natural resources / Scientific Foresight (STOA), DG EPRS, 2014.
Briefing on L’Union européenne et l’agriculture durable / A. Debyser, DG EPRS, 2013, 6 p.
Keysource on Sustainable Agriculture / M. Kollarova, DG EPRS, 2012.
Soil is a non-renewable source / FAO, 2015, 4 p.
Loss and degradation of soil is not recoverable within a human lifespan. This publication gives a short overview of key definitions, challenges and soil management actions.
Soil measures under the CAP and soil carbon accounting / A. Gumbert, DG for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission, 2014.
Presentation given at the concluding workshop of the Catch-C project. The presentation provides an overview of cross-compliance, rural development programmes and agri-environment-climate measures related to soil. The Catch-C project assesses farm-compatibility of ‘Best Management Practices’ related to productivity, climate change mitigation and soil quality.
The State of Soil in Europe: a contribution of the JRC to the European Environment Agency’s Environment State and Outlook Report – SOER 2010 / A. Jones et al., Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2012, 71 p.
The State of Soil in Europe describes the state and the key processes affecting soil in Europe, including trends and outlook. It is based on data by the European Soil Data Centre and further research by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
The state of the World’s land and water resources for food and agriculture: Managing systems at risk / FAO, 2011, 47 p.
Competing demands for land and water put increasing pressure on the environment, with intensification of agriculture at times leading to soil degradation. This summary report presents the state of land and water resources and analyses threats to food security. The report also provides projections for 2050 and policy recommendations. The study estimates global land degradation as follows: 10% improving land; 36% stable land, slightly or moderately degraded; 18% bare areas; 8% moderate degradation; and 25% high degradation or highly degraded lands.
Land Degradation and Desertification / C. Bowyer et al., Policy Department Economic and Scientific Policy, European Parliament, 2009, 102 p.
This 2009 policy department study cites a 2006 Commission report that estimates the EU-25 costs of degradation for erosion, organic matter decline, salinization, landslides and contamination at € 38 billion a year. The report looks at land degradation in Europe and provides solutions linked to agricultural systems. It provides an overview of European policies and discusses the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Europe.
The European environment: state and outlook 2015 ( soil briefing ) / European Environment Agency, 2015, 205 p.
Europe’s economic prosperity and well-being is intrinsically linked to its natural environment – from fertile soils to clean air and water, says the SOER 2015 report. The ambitions of the 7th Environment Action Programme have not yet been achieved. Loss of soil functions, land degradation and climate change still cause great concern, and are not expected to change favourably.
Understanding mountain soils: a contribution from mountain areas to the International Year of Soils 2015 / R. Romero (et al.). FAO, 2015. 169 p.
This publication, produced by the Mountain Partnership as a contribution to the International Year of Soils 2015, presents the main features of mountain soil systems, their environmental, economic and social values, the threats they are facing and the cultural traditions concerning them. Case studies provided by Mountain Partnership members and partners around the world showcase challenges and opportunities as well as lessons learned in soil management. This publication presents a series of lessons learned and recommendations to inform mountain communities, policy-makers, development experts and academics who support sustainable mountain development.
The new assessment of soil loss by water erosion in Europe / Panos Panagos (et al.). Environmental Science & Policy 54 (2015) 438–447.
Soil erosion by water is one of the major threats to soils in the European Union, with a negative impact on ecosystem services, crop production, drinking water and carbon stocks. The European Commission’s Soil Thematic Strategy has identified soil erosion as a relevant issue for the European Union, and has proposed an approach to monitor soil erosion. This paper presents the application of a modified version of the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) model (RUSLE2015) to estimate soil loss in Europe for the reference year 2010, within which the input factors (Rainfall erosivity, Soil erodibility, Cover-Management, Topography, Support practices) are modelled with the most recently available pan-European datasets.
Securing UK Soil Health / Jonathan Wentworth, UK Parliamentary Office of Science POSTnote POST-PN-0502, August 2015, 5 p.
2015 is the United Nations International Year of Soils. Soils underpin the global food system and regulate water, carbon and nitrogen cycles but are subject to pressures from population growth and climate change. In England & Wales, soil degradation costs around £1bn per year. This POSTnote outlines the evidence for measures that sustain soils and existing policies affecting soil health.
Do Current European Policies Prevent Soil Threats and Support Soil Functions? / N. Glaesner, K. Helming, W. De Vries, In: Sustainability, 2014, Nr. 6, pp. 9538 – 9563.
A cross-policy analysis that analysed gaps and overlaps in EU legislation relating to soil. The study found that only a few directives provide targets for reducing soil threats. Moreover compaction, salinization and soil sealing are not addressed in any of the 19 analysed policies.
LIFE and Soil protection / G. Camarsa et al., DG Environment, European Commission, 2014, 68 p.
This publication provides an overview of the contributions to soil protection of the EU’s LIFE programme for the environment and climate change 2014 – 2020. It presents the programmes and their distribution over the Member States.
Study on Soil and water in a changing environment / S. Mudgal et al., DG Environment, European Commission, 2014, 101 p.
The report focuses on soil water retention and includes an overview of the impact of different farm practices on soil water retention capacity.
The Sustainable Intensification of European Agriculture / A. Buckwell et al., RISE Foundation, 2014, 96 p.
Most of the production growth needed to feed a growing world population will come from sustainable intensification. This means generating a higher yield, while not increasing negative impact on the environment. The report contains a case study that analysed two thirds of EU-25 arable land to examine which areas would be suitable for sustainable intensification. 41% of the arable area showcases resilience and high production and is therefore considered suitable. 4% of the arable area would better be extensified. Especially the Mediterranean countries suffer from soils with low organic matter content (75% of total arable land).
Progress in the management of Contaminated Sites in Europe / M. van Liedekerke et al., Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2014, 68 p.
The report discusses the extent of soil contamination in Europe, the sectors that cause the contamination, the main contaminants and the costs and methods to clean up contamination. There are potentially 340.000 contaminated sites in Europe that require remediation.
Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing / European Commission, SWD(2012) 101, 2012, 65 p.
This Commission Staff Working Document provides an overview of the scale and impact of soil sealing and describes approaches to soil sealing that have been proven successful in Member States. Between 2000 and 2006, land take amounted to 920 square kilometres per year.
Addressing biodiversity and habitat preservation through measures applied under the Common Agricultural Policy ( Executive Summary ) / J. Poláková (et al), IEEP, DG Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission, 2011, 313 p.
Agricultural management has a profound impact on the functioning of natural systems as it accounts for about 40% of the total land area of EU-27. Biodiversity, especially regarding healthy soils, is essential for long-term productivity of agriculture. However, intensively cultivated farmland habitats and improved grasslands show high rates of decline in species diversity (birds, butterflies). The study examines the potential for maintaining and enhancing biodiversity through agriculture in grasslands and croplands. The report includes management options that impact biodiversity such as actions to reduce nutrient leaching from soils, actions for the diversification and rotation of crops and actions to maintain soil structure.
Soil Biodiversity and Agriculture / ECPA, ELO, E-Sycon, RIFCON GmbH, 2010, 53 p.
This report describes the contributions of soil organisms to agriculture; the influence of agriculture on soil organisms and the contributions agriculture can make to the conservation of soil biodiversity. The report also contains a list of national soil protection policies in Europe. Agricultural practices that increase soil organism populations include irrigation, crop rotation, higher plant coverage, low or no tillage, manuring and fertilisation. On the other hand, uncovered soil, acidification, a lack of landscape structures, heavy machinery, sludge dumping and intensive tillage cause a decrease of soil organisms.
EU Institutions and other bodies’ views
E-001630-15 , Soil protection, question for written answer, 30 January 2015.
E-010445-14 , Soil Directive, question for written answer, 9 December 2014.
E-008708-14 , Soil degradation, question for written answer, 4 November 2014.
Committee of the Regions
Opinion of the Committee of the Regions on ‘Implementation of the Soil Thematic Strategy’ , Committee of the Regions, 2013/C 17/08, 19 January 2013
United Nations / Food and Agricultural Organization views
New world soil charter endorsed by FAO members / FAO, 2015
Zero draft of the outcome document for the UN Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda / UN, 2015, 43 p.
Halting and reversing land degradation is expected to be included in goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDG agenda is to be adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. In this Zero Draft, the aims stated in article 15.3, are to: “by 2020, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world”.
Zero net land degradation: a sustainable development goal for Rio+20 / UNCCD, 2012, 28 p.
This report investigates the interlinkages and impact of land degradation and food security, (forced) migration, forests, climate and biodiversity. It is estimated that globally over two billion hectares of degraded land are suitable to be restored.
Healthy soils through modern farming / Copa Cogeca, 2015, 2 p.
The position paper states that soil is a farmer’s greatest asset and that food production and environmental protection complement each other. The paper concludes that “Europe should become a champion in exporting its high environmental standards together with its products […]”.
Land management: an issue that must be addressed / Momagri, 2015, 1 p.
This ‘look at the news’ views the disengagement of governments in soil preservation as a threat to the European agricultural potential and optimal food security.
Copa Cogeca welcomes withdrawal of EU Soil Framework Directive / Copa Cogeca, 2014, 1 p.
The EU soil directive: building the foundations for a quagmire of healthy humus? / International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements EU Regional Group, 2011, 12 p.
IFOAM EU argues for a stronger directive that should take a holistic approach, and not just protect soil but enhance it. IFOAM EU would like to see clearer EU ambition levels or targets in various soil related issues.
Farming sector supports thematic strategy on soil protection but rejects bureaucratic new directive / Copa Cogeca, 2008, 1p.
Soil / European Landowners Organisation, 2006, 1 p.
ELO took part in Working Group meetings surrounding the Soil Thematic Strategy and welcomes the strategy, stating that the functions of soil are worthy of protection. The organisation would like to see incentives for land businesses and mentions agri-environmental payments as an encouragement to mitigate land degradation threats.
European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC), maintained by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
LUCAS soil data : information on land cover and land use in Europe.
Agri-environmental indicator: soil erosion / Eurostat, 2015.
Agri-environmental indicator: land use change / Eurostat, 2012.
Agri-environmental indicator: soil quality / Eurostat, 2012.
Soil Atlas of Latin America and the Caribbean / C. Gardi et al., Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2014, 176 p.
Soil Atlas of Africa / A. Jones et al., Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2013, 184 p.
European Atlas of Soil Biodiversity / S. Jeffery, C. Gardi, A. Jones, Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2010, 128 p.
Soil Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region / A. Jones, V. Stolbovoy, C. Tarnocai, Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2010, 144 p.
Soil Atlas of Europe / A. Jones, L. Montanarella, R. Jones, European Soil Bureau Network, Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2005, 128 p.
The Soil Atlas contains many maps, outlining soil by type and by region. The different types of soil are explained and soil degradation threats are outlined.