Selection of image illustrating the diversity of organisms that live in the soil

4 things you need to know about soil health 

The EU is currently debating a new Soil Law. Why is it vital that the EU passes such a Law as quickly as possible? Soil is possibly the most overlooked habitat on earth, but also one of the most important. For the United Nations’ World Soil Day, we investigated just some of the surprising aspects of soil and why healthy soils matter more than you might think. Samantha Ibbott and Caroline Heinzel report.

1 | A spongy filter 

Soil health is closely linked to the quality and availability of water. Just one cubic meter of healthy soil can retain over 250 litres of water. That’s equivalent to about three bathtubs-worth of water! Degraded soils lose the ability to store and filter water, contributing to flooding as well as increased pollution and sedimentation which impacts ecosystems and human health as pollutants such as arsenic and cadmium enter rivers and streams.  

The relationship between water and soil is the foundation of agriculture. 95% of our food relies on these two resources. If Europe wants to protect its essential – but finite – freshwater reserves and ensure long-term food security, it must urgently do more to protect and improve soil health.  

2 | Power ally in the fight against global heating 

Healthy soils store more than just water. Vast amounts of carbon, in the form of dead plant, fungi, and animal material, are stored in healthy soils which significantly supports efforts to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. In Europe alone, peatlands store five times more carbon than all forests combined! But while healthy soils support these efforts, degraded and conventionally managed agricultural soils release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the scale of this degradation is alarming.  

The drainage of peatlands for agriculture, forestry and peat extraction, is responsible for about 7% of the total EU greenhouse gas emissions which is approximately double the direct EU emissions from aviation. 

3 | More species-rich than a rainforest 

A recent study found that soil is home to more than half of the world’s species, playing host to 90% of the world’s fungi, 85% of plants and more than 50% of bacteria! From microbes to mammals, soil is the most species-rich habitat on Earth – even more than rainforests and coral reefs!  

Admittedly, the soil dwellers might not conform to societal standards of beauty compared with many of their counterparts above ground, but without them many of society’s basic needs would be doomed. 

Fun fact: The largest organism in the world does not live in the ocean. It lives in soil. The blue whale may be BIG, but the title of the world’s largest organism goes to a fungus in Oregon, USA. The gigantic Armillaria ostoyae is estimated to be 2,400 years old and covers an area of 2,384 acres. That’s about 1,665 football fields!

4 | Soil can die 

Just as soil can be species-rich it can also become devoid of life. Like a rainforest, this vital yet delicate ecosystem is easily damaged by farming and other human activities. It is therefore essential that sustainable and agroecological soil management practices are used instead of intensive agricultural practices. Reduced tillage, crop rotations, and cover cropping are all examples of farming practices that protect and support soil life therefore improving soil health, reducing erosion and pollution and increasing water storage and filtration.  

Without healthy soils there is no food or clean drinking water. It’s as simple as that. And that’s not all. Soil degradation is estimated to cost EU countries more than €50 billion a year, according to the European Environment Agency.  

The current reality and what we can – and must – do 

Healthy soils are vital to life as we know it. Yet, despite its crucial role, Europe has allowed its soils to reach a critical state. Thanks to human activity approximately 60 to 70% of Europe’s soils are in a degraded condition, preventing them from providing essential services.  

Up until now there has been no law dedicated to the protection and restoration of soils. But in July 2023, the European Commission published a proposal for a Soil Monitoring Law (SML). This law could have the capacity to reverse these concerning trends and bring all soils in the EU back to good health. The success of numerous environmental objectives set by the EU, including reaching climate neutrality, rely on the health of our soil. 

We need the SML to make these a reality, but in its current state this legislation falls short of what’s needed. EU Ministers and Parliamentarians must improve the Commission’s proposal as it currently lacks the essential tools required to lead to effective change. As the name suggests, the law would support with monitoring, taking a closer look at the state of European soils. This is a first and essential step, but without clear obligations for EU countries to restore their soils, the situation will only continue to worsen.  

Grand visions and loose promises alone have never led to change. Soil may not be the ‘sexiest’ of topics, but as we’ve shown it certainly deserves the same legal protection that air and water already have. We cannot reap the rewards of the many services that nature provides if we don’t protect all ecosystems, including the ones beneath our feet.   

Discover more about the Commission’s proposal for a Soil Monitoring Law with our assessment.