Healthy soils are crucial for several reasons: Agricultural Productivity: Healthy soils are fundamental for growing crops. They provide essential nutrients, water, and support to plants, which is vital for food security. Environmental Health: Soils play a crucial role in the carbon cycle. Healthy soils can sequester carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. They also filter water, reducing pollutants entering waterways. Biodiversity: A diverse soil ecosystem is rich in microorganisms, insects, and other organisms. This biodiversity is essential for nutrient cycling and overall ecological balance. Sustainability: Healthy soils are more resilient to stresses like drought and disease. This resilience is key for sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation to ensure Soil Health.
Healthy Soils in the EU?
Soils are the foundation for 95% of the food we eat, host more than 25% of the world’s biodiversity, are the largest terrestrial carbon pool on the planet and play a key role in the circular economy and adaptation to climate change. They are also a finite and non-renewable natural resource. 60-70% of soil ecosystems in the EU are unhealthy and suffering from continuing degradation resulting in reduced provision of ecosystem services. Unhealthy soils can be:
In bad physical condition:
- 12.7% of Europe is affected by moderate to high erosion.
- Between 2012 and 2018, more than 400 km² of land was taken per year in the EU for urban and artificial development on a net basis.
- More than 530 million tonnes of soil have been excavated and reported as waste.
- An estimated 30 to 50% of the most productive and fertile soils in Europe suffer from soil compaction.
In bad chemical condition:
- Europe currently exceeds its safe operating space for the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles by factors of 3.3 and 2.0 respectively.
- Diffuse and local soil contamination is widespread. 390 000 contaminated soils are expected to require remediation. By 2018, only some 65 500 sites were remediated.
- Salinisation affects 3.8 million ha in the EU, with severe soil salinity along the coastlines, particularly in the Mediterranean.
In bad biological condition:
- Peatland drainage across all land categories in the EU emits around 5% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions. Every year mineral soils under cropland are losing around 7.4 million tonnes of carbon.
- In recent decades, soil biodiversity such as the species richness of earthworms, springtails and mites has been reduced.
- The risk of desertification is increasing across the EU and already affecting agricultural production.
The main sectoral drivers of soil degradation in the EU are:
- land-use change
- urban sprawl, excessive and uncompensated spatial development and construction
- climate change, drought, extreme weather
- unsustainable soil management and intensification of agricultural and forestry practices
- industrial activities and emissions, unsustainable waste management and energy production, accidents and spills
- improper water management, reuse and irrigation
- overexploitation, unmitigated and uncompensated consumption of natural resources.
The problem of unhealthy soils can be traced back to the following cross-cutting underlying causes:
- Market failures: pricing problems because the cost of soil degradation is not fully internalised in prices, principal agent problems (e.g. conflicting interests between land owners and users), underdeveloped markets for new business models (e.g. payments for soil ecosystem services), lack of information and data on soil quality, etc.
- Behavioural biases: limited rationality of certain stakeholders e.g. due to the complexity of the problem, lack of awareness of the importance of soil health, focus on short-term benefits without taking account of future costs, income-related drivers, etc.
- Technological drivers: lack of technological solutions (e.g. for restoration), insufficient digitisation, gaps in research and innovation, etc.
- Regulatory failures: insufficient implementation of existing legislation, lack of EU comprehensive regulatory framework and piecemeal approach, etc.
The new EU Soil Strategy for 2030 was adopted in 2021 and sets the vision to have all soils in healthy condition by 2050 and to make protection, sustainable use and restoration of soils the norm. It proposes a combination of voluntary and legislative action and announces that the Commission will table a new legislative proposal on soil health by 2023 to help to achieve the vision and objectives of the strategy. The intervention will contribute to the overall goals of the European Green Deal, to existing EU medium- and long-term policy objectives for 2030 and 2050, and particularly to the vision that all soil ecosystems should be in healthy condition by 2050.
Most of the drivers of soil degradation are not projected to change favourably as it stands, so the remaining healthy soils will come even under more pressure in the future, leading to a further reduction in the provision of ecosystem services. It has been estimated that soil degradation costs the EU around 50 billion euro per year. Halting and reversing current trends of soil degradation could generate up to EUR 1.2 trillion per year in economic benefits globally. The cost of inaction on soil degradation outweighs the cost of action by a factor of 6 in Europe, so it makes sound economic sense to tackle this problem as soon as possible.
Soil degradation, and its drivers and impacts, know no borders. Soils play a major role in the nutrient, carbon and water cycles, and these processes are not constrained by physical and political borders. EU imports and consumption of goods can cause soil degradation outside the EU. Excavated soils are often shipped across borders, while eroded soil particles are transported by wind and water. Contaminants can become mobile via the air, surface water and groundwater and in the end pollute the soil in another country. Soil pollution can pose risks for food safety on the internal market. Land degradation and climate change are likely to force 50 to 700 million people to migrate by 2050, which will put pressure on European borders.
Land and soil degradation are addressed very unevenly in national policies and legislation: some Member States have very elaborate soil protection rules, others do not have provisions beyond those derived from soil-related EU policies.8,9 Differences between national soil protection rules lead to very different obligations for economic operators across the EU, resulting in a distortion of the internal market, unfair competition, a lack of legal certainty, an uneven playing field and uneven protection levels for soil and land.
At international level, the EU and its Member States committed to achieve land degradation neutrality by 2030 (SDG 15.3), to keep the global rise in temperature below 1.5-2°C compared to pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC), to combat desertification and mitigate the effect of droughts (UNCCD), to conserve soil biological diversity and use its components sustainably (CBD) and to address the issue of soil pollution (e.g. UNEA-3 Resolution, Minamata and Stockholm Conventions). Healthy soils are crucial to achieve these international commitments.
Likely environmental impacts
Key environmental impacts of the intervention that are likely to be screened are the impact on biodiversity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, use of resources, quality of other environmental media such as water and air, waste management, and overall environmental risks (including at international level).
Likely economic impacts
Key economic impacts of the business as usual scenario and of the policy options that are likely to be screened are the impact on competitiveness, the functioning of the internal market and competition, the impact on companies and SMEs, land owners and users (e.g. farmers), regulatory burdens, research & innovation, technological development, the impact on consumers and households, public authorities and budgets.
Likely social impacts
Key social impacts of the intervention that are likely to be screened are the impact on employment, human health, education and training, and good administration.
Likely impacts on fundamental rights and the sustainable development goals
Depending on the options chosen, the initiative could contribute to achieving a number of objectives in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, e.g. a high level of human health, environmental and consumer protection. The intervention will also contribute to achieving the Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular SDGs 15 (life on land), 13 (climate action), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 6 (clean water), 3 (good health and well-being) and 2 (zero hunger), but to a certain extent to almost all other SDGs.
In summary, healthy soils are the foundation of our food system, environmental health, and biodiversity. We can support your business in assessing, improving, and maintaining the health of soils through a variety of means, from technical analysis to policy advocacy.