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Questions and Answers on the EU Soil Strategy

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op woensdag 17 november 2021.

Why do we need to act on soils?

Soil is the foundation for all the food chains and for biodiversity on the ground. Healthy soils are a solution for the key challenges addressed by the European Green Deal, including climate neutrality, a clean and circular economy, reversing biodiversity loss, providing healthy food, safeguarding human health, halting desertification and land degradation.

Yet, around 60 to 70% of soils in the EU are not healthy. Every year about 1 billion tons of soil are washed away by erosion in the EU, causing an estimated loss of agricultural production in the EU of €1.25 billion per year. Soils suffer also from organic matter decline, pollution, loss of biodiversity, salinisation and sealing resulting from unsustainable land-use and management, overexploitation and emissions of pollutants.

We can no longer neglect the risk that comes from the worsening situation of European soils. We need a transformation where protecting, sustainably managing and restoring soils is part of the socio-economic model.

The Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 announced a new Soil Strategy to make European soils healthy again and strive to achieve land degradation neutrality by 2030, one of the Sustainable Development Goals the EU subscribed to.

How serious is the problem of soil degradation?

Every year, about 1 billion tonnes of soil are washed away by erosion, the equivalent of one metre depth on an area corresponding to the surface of Berlin. Carbon stocks in soils are declining: between 45.000 and 55.000 km² of peatlands have been drained in the past for agricultural use and are emitting carbon into the atmosphere. 2.8 million sites are potentially polluted by industrial risk activities.

More than 400 km² of land is taken every year on a net basis by urban areas and infrastructure, predominantly at the expense of agricultural land. Intensive land management and land use change negatively impacts soil biodiversity such as earthworms, springtails and mites. Human induced salinization affects 3.8 million ha in the EU, with severe soil salinity along the coastlines, particularly in the Mediterranean. In Southern, Central and Eastern Europe 25% of soils show high or very high risk of desertification corresponding to about 411 000 km².

What are the main actions to address soil pollution?

The Soil Strategy builds on the actions already proposed in the Chemicals Strategy and the Zero Pollution Action Plan. In line with the zero pollution ambition, soil pollution should be reduced by 2050 to levels that are not harmful for people and environment. To prevent soil pollution, the Commission will revise the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive and evaluate the Sewage Sludge Directive, restrict substances such as microplastics and PFAS under the REACH Regulation, improve risk assessment methodologies and review the application of the Fertilising Products Regulation.

The Commission will consider options for proposing legally binding provisions to identify, register and remediate contaminated sites. In addition, the Commission will develop an EU priority list for soil contaminants, revise the Industrial Emissions Directive, evaluate the Environmental Liability Directive and assess the feasibility of introducing a soil health certificate for land transactions.

Will the Commission propose legislation on soil?

Soils deserve and require the same level of legal protection as air, water and the marine environment at EU level. The Commission will now work very closely with Member States, experts and stakeholders and, following the vision set out in this Strategy, carry out an impact assessment. In consequence, the Commission will propose a new legislative initiative on soil health to meet the objectives of the Soil Strategy. Such proposal will tackle the transboundary impact of soil degradation and set measures across the EU, building on the sustainability principle and applying the better regulation rules. While many problems will require a common European approach, the Commission will undertake a diligent subsidiarity check. Apart from getting the scope and the level of ambition right, this check will also ensure that national and regional solutions can be applied where they make more sense. The European Parliament has already called for such an EU-wide common legal framework for soil. The Committee of the Regions, the European Court of Auditors as well as numerous stakeholders have echoed this request.

How will soil protection help against climate change?

Healthy soils will strengthen the EU's resilience and reduce its vulnerability to climate change. Soils are the largest terrestrial carbon pool on the planet. They store more carbon than the atmosphere and all biomass combined. Given the crucial role of soil in the water cycle, it is also an indispensable ally for climate adaptation. A high water retention capacity in soils reduces the effects of floods and decreases the negative impact of droughts.

To achieve a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, and land-based neutrality by 2035, it is crucial to stop emissions from drained peatlands and to increase the carbon that is stored in other soils. Restoring peatlands alone could significantly reduce CO2 emissions, which comes with numerous additional benefits including for nature, biodiversity and water protection.

The Commission will launch a carbon farming initiative and join the global “4 per 1000” initiative to increase the soil organic carbon content in agricultural land. Supported by solid science, this initiative invites all partners to state or implement practical actions on soil carbon storage and the type of practices to achieve this (e.g. agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, landscape management, etc.). The ambition of the initiative is to encourage stakeholders to transition towards a productive, highly resilient agriculture, based on the appropriate management of lands and soils.

To make sustainable soil management the new normal, a set of practices and principles will be established and a network of practitioners, living labs and lighthouses will promote these. By 2023, the Commission will propose a legislative framework for an EU sustainable food system.

What actions are planned to boost soil's contribution to the circular economy?

The safe application of clean compost, digestate, sewage sludge and processed manure will help to close the nutrient and carbon cycles. Prioritising the circular use of land over greenfield development will limit the acute pressure from soil sealing and land take on forests, agricultural land and nature. To safely re-use excavated soils and to separate contaminated from clean soil, it is necessary to enhance monitoring throughout the value chain, with traceability and quality control from the excavation site up to the receiving end. The Commission will further investigate the streams of excavated soils generated, treated and re-used in the EU, and benchmark the market situation in Member States by 2023.

The Commission will also assess the need and potential for legally binding provisions for a “passport for excavated soil” as part of the development of the Soil Health Law, and provide guidance, based on Member States experiences, to put in place such a system.

To achieve the EU goal of no net land take by 2050, Member States should set by 2023 their own ambitious national, regional and local net land take reduction targets for 2030 and apply the ‘land take hierarchy' of avoid - reuse - minimize - compensate, instead of sealing off new natural or agricultural land. The Commission will, as part of the impact assessment on the Soil Health Law, consider options to monitor and report on the progress towards the no net land take targets and provide guidance to public authorities and private companies on how to reduce soil sealing.

What does ‘land take' and ‘no net land take' mean?

The Soil Health Law will provide the definition, following an impact assessment and a consultation with Member States, experts and stakeholders. Scientific literature defines land take generally as the loss of agricultural, forest and other semi-natural and natural land to urban and other artificial land development. This includes areas sealed by construction and urban infrastructure as well as urban green areas and sport and leisure facilities. Since the 1950s it has largely been driven by urban sprawl.

Sealing agricultural land and open spaces should be avoided as far as possible and the focus should be on building on land that has already been sealed. This might require greater investment, for example to redevelop land previously used as an industrial site (including decontamination). When land is taken, the aspiration is to ensure this is no more than is compensated for elsewhere - ‘no net land take'. For example, unused land could be returned to cultivation or renaturalised so that it can once again provide the ecosystem services of unsealed soils.

How does the Strategy address desertification?

Desertification is a form of land degradation in drylands. It is a growing threat in the EU, exacerbated by climate change. Its effects will be particularly acute in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania.

The Soil Strategy addresses the recommendations made by the European Court of Auditors in its report on desertification. The Commission will establish a methodology to map and assess desertification and land degradation in the EU, and regularly report on the trend.

The Commission also proposes to declare the EU as party affected by desertification under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and continue to encourage Member States to participate in its Land Degradation Neutrality Target Setting Programme.

What does the Strategy mean for farmers?

Farmers work on their land every day. Their livelihood and our future depends on the long-term health of the soils on which they grow their crops or graze their livestock.

The Commission will assist Member States to set up a “test your soil for free” initiative, allowing farmers and other actors to know more about the health of their soil. Through new carbon farming models and private sustainable investment schemes, farmers will be rewarded for storing carbon and delivering ecosystem services.

Working towards a state of no net land take and applying a hierarchy to increase circular use of land will help to secure sufficient land for food production also in the future. The Common Agricultural Policy is an indispensable tool to support farmers in embracing soil stewardship. The Common Agricultural Policy as well as the farm advisory services will have a key role to play in supporting the greater use of sustainable soil management practices amongst farmers.

Farmers will also be closely involved and will benefit from investments in knowledge exchange and development. With the involvement of the agricultural sector, the Horizon Europe Mission ‘A Soil Deal for Europe' will set-up 100 living labs and lighthouses to foster the transition to sustainable soil management in agricultural land.

What are the costs and benefits of the Strategy?

The impact of land and soil degradation is enormous, and comes with a huge cost of €50 billion per year for the EU. Soil erosion costs Europe €1.25 billion solely in annual agricultural productivity loss. Soil degradation affects us all economically: 54% of the cost represents a loss of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, hydrological control, nutrient cycling, hosting soil biodiversity and provision of recreation. The other half of the cost often comes at the expense of private parties and landowners due to a reduction in provisioning services such as biomass and raw materials.

The cost of taking action is much smaller than the cost of inaction. Halting and reversing current trends of soil degradation could generate up to €1.2 trillion per year of economic benefits globally. Investing in soil prevention and restoration makes sound economic sense, as healthy soils are our best insurance to secure our well-being in the long-run.

What funding opportunities are available at EU level?

The EU provides a lot of funding to projects and initiatives that make soils healthier:

  • The LIFE programme contributes to the development and demonstration of innovative solutions for the improvement of soil quality.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy supports the sustainable development of rural areas through improving the competitiveness of agriculture and forestry, by ensuring sustainable soil management and by territorial development of rural economies.
  • The European Regional Development Fund and Cohesion Fund strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion by supporting the transition to a greener and carbon free Europe. This includes the protection of nature, biodiversity and green infrastructure including in cities, and the rehabilitation of contaminated land.
  • The Just Transition Fund enables regions and people to address the social, economic and environmental impacts of the transition towards a climate-neutral economy. Investments in regeneration and decontamination of sites, land restoration and repurposing projects are eligible when these help to achieve climate neutrality, e.g. the remediation of former coal mines that are put out of commission.
  • The Recovery and Resilience Facility makes loans and grants available to support Member States with the green transition. A number of national Recovery and Resilience Plans have included measures on soil protection. Particularly relevant in this context is the Commission's ‘do no significant harm' technical guidance to help Member States prepare their Recovery and Resilience Plans.
  • The Horizon Europe programme supports knowledge development for the cluster food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment. The programme also launched a Mission ‘A Soil Deal for Europe'. Horizon Europe also co-funds several relevant EU partnerships, amongst others the partnership for the assessment of the risks of chemicals, the partnership on agro-ecology living labs and research infrastructures.

How will the EU work with its international partners to protect soils worldwide?

Healthy soils are crucial to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and land degradation neutrality (SDG 15.3). The Commission will join the global “4 per 1000” initiative, propose to declare the EU as affected party under the UNCCD and continue to support the Global Soil Partnership and other international projects in promoting sustainable soil management worldwide.

The EU will aim for increased ambition under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that recognizes the importance of soil biodiversity and sustainable soil management. The Commission will also support the establishment of the Global Soil Biodiversity Observatory as proposed by FAO's Global Soil Partnership.

How does the Strategy aim to increase knowledge on soils?

The Commission will enhance the use of digital tools and rely on the European Environment Agency (EEA) to further develop the Land Information System for Europe (LISE), based on the Copernicus Land Monitoring Portal. The promotion of scientific knowledge and data collection about soil will be substantially boosted through specific initiatives, such as the Horizon Europe Mission ‘A Soil Deal for Europe', the EU Soil Observatory, the Land Use/Cover Area framework Survey (LUCAS) and Digital Earth. The Commission will also launch soil literacy and awareness initiatives, and make sure that sufficient private and public funding is made available to finance the transition.

For More Information

Press release

Factsheet on Soil Strategy


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