European strategy for healthy soils and sustainable soil management

A key deliverable of the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the EU Green Deal was the release of a new EU soil strategy on the 17th of November 2021. According to the EU Soil Strategy for 2030, protection, sustainable use and restoration of soil must become the new normal. Urgent action and a legislative proposal on soil health, increased research and mobilizing societal engagement and financial resources shall enable making soils and ecosystems more resilient and healthy by 2050.

2021.12.10 | Line Carlenius Berggreen

Vision of the new EU Soil Strategy for 2030 aligned with EJP SOIL

The new EU Soil Strategy sets a framework with concrete measures for protection, restoration and sustainable use of soils and proposes a set of voluntary and legally binding measures. This strategy aims to increase the soil carbon in agricultural land, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, and ensure that by 2050, all soil ecosystems are in a healthy condition.

The strategy adheres to the fact that not enough people know that healthy soils soil hosts more than 25% of all biodiversity on the planet and is the foundation of the food chains nourishing humanity and above ground biodiversity (FAO). Soils are also the largest terrestrial carbon pool on the planet, and carbon is essential in regulating the temperature on earth, hence, a vital element for all life forms. Despite the fact that 70% of soils are in poor unhealthy conditions, soils are expected to feed and filter drinking water fit for consumption to a global population of nearly 10 billion people by 2050 (World Resources Institute). 

Three main objectives

The new EU Soil strategy sets three main objectives:

  1. All EU soil ecosystems are healthy and more resilient and can therefore continue to provide their crucial services.
  2. There is no net land take and soil pollution is reduced to levels that are no longer harmful to people’s health or ecosystems.
  3. Protecting soils, managing them sustainably and restoring degraded soils is common standard.

The set framework for action in the new soil strategy considers four main areas of action. These include: 1) Soil as a key solution for our big challenges, 2) Preventing soil and land degradation and restoring healthy soils, 3) The need to know more about soils, and finally, 4) Enabling the transition to healthy soils. Among the key actions to achieve the objectives is an acknowledgement of the need for increased research and knowledge, data and monitoring of soil.

Figure 1: Main and sub-areas covered by the legislative proposal.

As a start, by 2023, the EU-Commission will produce a legislative proposal on soil health. The purpose of this legislative proposal is to empower the objectives of good soil health to be achieved across the EU by 2050.

Soil as key solution for our big challenges

Healthy soils will make the EU more resilient and reduce its vulnerability to climate change. The aim of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 relies on carbon removals through the restoration and better management of soils. The commission considers proposing legally binding objectives to limit drainage of wetlands and organic soils and to restore managed and drained peatlands. It will contribute to the Global Peatlands Initiative and join the 4 per 1000 Initiative and will present an EU carbon farming initiate and a legislative proposal on C removal certification.

Other actions concern a safe, sustainable and circular use of excavated soils, limiting land take and soil sealing with a circular use of land. To protect soil biodiversity stronger synergies will be developed with the Convention on Biological Diversity and with the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative.

Research on the understanding of soil management and its influence on climate change mitigation and adaptation, considering specific options on soil carbon sequestration and multi-functionality, identifying, predicting and reducing trade-offs will provide an overview of sustainable agricultural production and environmentally sound soil management practices.

Furthermore, research addressing strengths and weaknesses of current carbon farming schemes can outline a roadmap for local and regional implementation of attractive and effective result-based schemes for carbon farming leading to improved knowledge on organic carbon storage in soil, crop diversity, mixed species systems as levers, field monitoring of carbon stocks and soil fertility.    

Preventing soil and land degradation and restoring healthy soils

The new soil strategy calls for action on long-term measures to prevent and mitigate degradation by adapting crops to the local water availability, coupled with wider use of drought management plans and restoration of degraded soils.  

To support the new soil strategy in making sustainable soil management the new normal, better technical support for soil stakeholders, guidelines, decision support and tools for farm advisory services and policy stakeholders are needed.

The strategy recognizes that there is no solution applying to all pedoclimatic conditions and land uses and aims to identify a set of sustainable soil management options for the different contexts. Actions to be taken is for example proposing a scheme for land owners to get their soils tested for free, promoting sustainable soil management through the CAP and sharing best practices.

Valuable opportunities for soil data, monitoring and innovation with the digital agenda

The strategy also call for action to gain more knowledge on soil data and monitoring of soils. Digital technologies present new and untapped opportunities for monitoring the pressures and condition of soils and land.

Focused efforts on innovative digital technologies must be prioritized with the aim of developing generic, adaptable methodologies for using sensor data, assessing different approaches for the harmonization of datasets, parameters and models as well as techniques for the monitoring of soils. Digital technologies will improve the coordination of mitigation strategies such as estimating the fertility in agricultural soil by the use of soil sensors for quick and simple 'in field' soil sensing.

Actions for soil data harmonization entail efforts on identifying and harmonizing soil data, soil indicators, soil mapping and databases across Europe. Harmonization of soil data enables streamlining data and information flows, reporting and accounting of functional properties of agricultural soils. The future European Soil Observatory will here have a central role.

Enabling the transition to healthy soil

The Soil strategy for 2030 calls for committed action on societal engagement and provision of financial resources. Formal soil education should be complemented with active hands on learning and sharing of best practices and knowledge.

To build capacity of a larger audience such as farmer advisors, organizing courses on new tools for soil management, and publishing educational material can be done by enhanced collaboration with Living Labs, Lighthouses and Long Term Experiment fields and laboratories. This will contribute to capacity building of soil stakeholders, scientists working on agricultural soils and the general public across Europe.

Call for all stakeholders to take action

The strategy concludes with a call for urgent action and collaboration to heal European Soils, stating that the European Commission will engage in discussions with the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of Regions, the civil society, economic operators and other stakeholders on the actions of the Soil Strategy for 2030 to reach common success.

 


For more information:

·        FAO (2020), State of knowledge of soil biodiversity - Status, challenges and potentialities.

·        World resources report, July 2019

·        EU soil strategy for 2030 – link to full PDF file

 


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