Trees growing out of soil which is eroding away.

Crumbling foundations: What the EU is doing to protect soil health 

Healthy soils put food on our plates, filter and store the water we drink, and help plants grow. They teem with life, and it is this life that runs the natural processes that are crucial for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to thrive. However, currently up to 70% of European soils are unhealthy and it is predicted that, if we continue with business-as-usual, 90% of global soils could be in bad health by 2050. We’re facing a situation where our life support system is rapidly deteriorating. So, what is the EU doing about this? Caroline Heinzel and Samantha Ibbott bring us up to date.  

Europe’s first dedicated law for soil 

In the Soil Strategy for 2030 the European Commission committed to introducing the first piece of EU legislation on soils, a Soil Health Law, to ensure healthy soils by mid-century. Unfortunately, what was published, renamed the “Soil Monitoring Law”, fell far short of expectations, with Green MEPs raising concerns that intensive lobbying from centre-right party groups interested in maintaining the status quo led to a toothless directive.

But the proposal did include some key elements, including a framework for monitoring and assessing the health of Europe’s soils, ensuring the implementation of sustainable soil management practices and the management of contaminated sites (all vital components of the strategy to return our precious soils to full health). But without legally-binding targets, robust soil biodiversity descriptors, or the requirement for EU countries to draw up soil health plans, the proposal lacked the essential components needed to ensure its proper implementation and a full restoration of European soil health by 2050.

Did you know…? 

A recent study revealed that soil is likely home to 59% of species, making it the single most biodiverse habitat on Earth – more than coral reefs or rainforests! As the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) rightly pointed out, soil microbial ecosystems are likely the most genetically diverse communities on the planet. Less than a spoonful of healthy soil can contain several kilometres of fungal structures. 

It is these living things that forms the basis for life itself. The bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, and many more, collectively drive this underground ecosystem and its many benefits including the cycling of nutrients, decomposition of organic matter, pest control and the supply of nutritious food.

Can the proposal be improved?  

Yes, and the European Parliament can and must. On 11 March this year, the Parliament’s leading committee on this law, the Environment (ENVI) Committee, voted on the proposal, confirming its position in a report, and improved some aspects:

  • A big step for soil life 
    While the Commission’s proposal regrettably lacked focus on soil biodiversity, the ENVI Committee introduced a robust definition along with a comprehensive list of soil biodiversity descriptors, most notably measuring the diversity of soil organisms and population abundance. This is vital as soil life and its role in natural processes is key for the transition to sustainable food systems. Gathering and assessing this data is also needed to propel important scientific advancements and the development of methods crucial for farmers who will be the ones taking care of agricultural soils whilst facing the impacts of the climate crisis.  
  • Public participation and information to the public 
    Rules for public involvement in decision making have also been improved in the ENVI report. For example, it expands the scope of public participation in the identification, investigation and management of contaminated sites, both in terms of actors included and topics to be consulted on. It also makes some positive additions regarding the public’s access to information, specifying for some cases that this access must be free of charge and user-friendly. 

However, it was not all good news. 

Lacking urgency 

While the ENVI report moves the Soil Law closer to reality, it falls short in addressing critical gaps necessary to ensure healthy soils by mid-century. The report fails to improve the Commission’s proposal in terms of urgency and introduces unnecessary flexibility for EU countries in crucial areas where strong action to protect soils is needed. Healthy soils are fundamental for agricultural production in the long term and choosing to invest in soil health is not only essential for environmental health and food security, but it is also a crucial – and common-sense – business decision.  

For instance, improvements in soil structure through no-till farming could increase farmers’ profits by €97 per hectare, with sustainable practices potentially increasing profits by an estimated 60% upon full implementation. At the same time, it is estimated that soil erosion resulting from years of intensive cultivation leads to an approximately 8% decrease in crop productivity. Put simply, healthy soil, bigger yields. 

“If you feel like it” policy 

Legally-binding targets (or a complete lack thereof) is another issue. The ENVI report missed the opportunity to set legally binding targets or intermediate milestones for achieving healthy soils by 2050. Such targets would have been both symbolically powerful, as they signal the EU’s intent to take strong, concerted action, and legally powerful, enforcing Union-wide accountability and allowing for legal action when targets are not met.

However, the ENVI report has introduced a new positive element – a timeline outlining a pathway towards the improvement of soil health. While this is positive, it is not a target, and a timeline set at a local level without an EU-wide target will not be sufficient to drive timely action across Europe. Moreover, the timeline excludes contaminated sites, reducing its scope and hindering the EU’s ability to achieve healthy soils. 

Undermining harmonisation 

In yet another example of ‘if you feel like it’ policy, their report has not only rendered the list of common principles for sustainable soil management voluntary, but also weakened many principles further. Peatland protection is such an example, which is highly concerning as protecting peatlands is not only essential for soil health, but also for supporting the EU in achieving its climate targets. All this grants countries excessive flexibility in defining their practices, undermining harmonisation and failing to create a level playing field across the EU.

But that’s not all, the majority of MEPs in the ENVI Committee also voted to make any action on land take (the process of building infrastructure on natural or agricultural land) voluntary. Land take is a vital issue to regulate when protecting soil health, and this decision completely disregards the urgent need for a target to achieve both healthy soils and net zero land take by 2050. 

One step forward, three steps back 

While it is very positive that the ENVI report allows the Commission to establish maximum values for pollution on contaminated sites, it falls short of sufficiently tackling diffuse soil pollution – which often spreads over large areas and does not come from one single, easily identifiable source (such as fertilisers or pesticides). Despite evidence showing that widespread pesticide contamination is the norm rather than the exception – another a major threat to soil biodiversity – the list of pesticides that must be monitored is inadequately small, focusing only on highly hazardous and banned pesticides. Furthermore, pharmaceuticals, veterinary products and microplastics are omitted from mandatory testing for all EU countries, leaving monitoring optional for countries that choose to test them.  

And finally, while it’s positive to see that the report empowers the Commission to establish a watch list of priority substances, clear EU-thresholds for the monitoring and assessment of priority substances are needed. 

Why do we need a strong Soil Law? 

We need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, which is why there are laws in place to protect the air, water, and even marine environments. But there is no corresponding law for soil, which lays forgotten beneath our feet. Soil is vital for achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal and is a crucial ally in tackling the triple climate, biodiversity and pollution crises. Here are just a few reasons why Europe needs a strong soil law:  

  • The annual emissions from drained peatlands alone create about 7% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions – double that from aviation!  
  • Healthy soils are crucial for the long-term resilience of food systems and farmers’ livelihoods.  
  • Soil degradation costs the EU up to €97 billion per year, and that’s not including the cost of soil biodiversity loss, which is not even quantified yet. 
  • The cost of inaction outweighs the cost of action by a factor of six.  

And we’re not the only ones calling for a strong Soil Law.  Businesses like Nestlé, Pepsico and Unilever, farmers, scientists, local governments, foundations and civil society are all demanding more ambition.  

What’s next? 

The fact that both ENVI and AGRI committees were in favour of the law and ENVI MEPs adopted all 14 compromises that had been negotiated between the political groups in the weeks prior to the vote stands as a symbol for constructive cooperation. It is this spirit of compromise that will ultimately lead to a soil law for the EU. And while significant gaps on key issues remain, this is nevertheless a positive step.  

Next steps in the Parliament? The upcoming plenary vote will take place on 10 April, where it is essential that the urgent need for action remains at the forefront. The Council of the European Union also continues its negotiations on the Soil Monitoring Law in preparation for negotiations with the Parliament after the elections. It is therefore vital that the Parliament adopt the ENVI report in full at the plenary on 10 April so that it can defend the long-term interests of Europeans in those negotiations and prevent further weakening by EU governments.  

Lawmakers must continue to collaborate constructively on this crucial issue. Bringing soils back to health is not optional – it is a prerequisite for agriculture, food security, water availability, human health, circular economy and climate stability in the coming decades.  

The clock is ticking. With only 26 years remaining, further inaction will only jeopardise our common efforts to build a sustainable future for all. Europe needs a robust Soil Law and all eyes are on the European Parliament to deliver.