Aside from some existing EU legal provisions relevant to soil protection and actions undertaken under the 2006 Soil Thematic Strategy, the EU has so far not been able to equip itself with an adequate legal framework granting soil the same level of protection as water, marine environment and air. Yet, the need has become more pressing, and the knowledge about soils and the recognition of their value has advanced significantly over the past years. The pressures, expectations and claims on soil have intensified, while the climate and biodiversity crises are aggravating the situation.
We need healthy soils now more than ever.
What is a healthy soil?
Soils are healthy when they are in good chemical, biological and physical condition, and thus able to continuously provide as many of the following ecosystem services as possible:
• provide food and biomass production, including in agriculture and forestry;
• absorb, store and filter water and transform nutrients and substances, thus protecting groundwater bodies;
• provide the basis for life and biodiversity, including habitats, species and genes;
• act as a carbon reservoir;
• provide a physical platform and cultural services for humans and their activities;
• act as a source of raw materials;
• constitute an archive of geological, geomorphological and archaeological heritage.
The upcoming Commission proposal for a Nature Restoration Law aims at restoring ecosystems to good condition by 2050. Yet to achieve that objective for soil ecosystems, given the lack of EU soil policy, a number of important policy gaps will remain and would need to be filled. This Communication addresses these gaps through several strands.
The lack of dedicated EU legislation has been singled out by many as a major cause for the alarming state of our soils. Indeed, soil degradation has impacts that go beyond national borders, and lack of action in one Member State may lead to environmental degradation in another one. Equally, soil degradation, and an uneven and fragmented response by Member States to tackle it, has led to an uneven playing field for economic operators who have to go by different rules on soil protection while competing on the same market.
To address transboundary impacts of soil degradation, secure equal market conditions, promote policy coherence at EU and national level and thus be able to achieve our goals on climate change, biodiversity, food security and water protection, the Commission will table a dedicated legislative proposal on soil health by 2023 which will enable the objectives of this strategy to be met and good soil health to be achieved across the EU by 2050. Such a legislative initiative will fulfil better regulation requirements, be based on a thorough impact assessment, including a subsidiarity check, and fully respect the competences of Member States in this matter. To determine the scope and content of this proportionate and risk-based framework, the Commission will engage in a broad and inclusive consultation with Member States, the European Parliament and all relevant stakeholders.
While there is a big variety in the EU, soils also present a set of common characteristics. This makes it possible to define common ranges or thresholds beyond which soils cannot be considered healthy anymore. Such indicators for soil health and their range of values that should be achieved by 2050 to ensure good soil health will need to be developed and agreed, and they should be considered at EU level in the context of the Soil Health Law to ensure a level playing field and a high level of environmental and health protection. The Commission will mandate the new enlarged Expert Group on Soil Protection to develop them, building on the Soil Mission’s work. The membership of the current Commission Expert Group will be complemented in a balanced manner in order to provide additional advice. The Mission Board had advocated to aim for 75% of the soils of the European Union (EU) to be healthy or improving by 2030.
Knowing the health of a soil is very relevant for farmers, foresters, landowners, but also for banks, public authorities and many other stakeholders. There is an increasing interest for a refined soil quality index, e.g. in the financial and industrial sector. Some Member States have developed certificates of soil health to be provided during land transactions to adequately inform the buyer. In parallel, both the public and private sectors have been developing and investing in outcome-oriented approaches fostering effective practices for soil health, biodiversity, carbon storage capacity, etc.