Science communication

2021.12.09

EU Soil Strategy treads carefully

Now it is here – the long-awaited proposal for an EU soil strategy. It treads carefully though, since the Commission’s last trial in 2006 to get a soil directive in place failed. So, this proposal mainly suggests long term objectives for soils and only has few hard core legally binding actions.

Text: Gun Rudquist, Head of policy, Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre

The EU Commission initiated getting a soil directive in place already last fall by presenting a road map for a strategy. This was followed up with an open consultation in March this year and now the strategy is released. The suggested timeline is that a dedicated legislative proposal on soil health will be presented 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. Meanwhile, this proposal will be discussed both in the European Parliament and by the Council.

In the proposed strategy, the Commission underlines the importance of acknowledging how essential healthy soils are for the environment, our food systems and climate mitigation. Soils have long been not only a neglected policy area, but also missing in the public debate and in peoples’ minds. The Commission argues that we all tend to take soils for granted and do not recognise the importance of healthy soils. The strategy and a future directive aim to change this.  

The strategy covers a range of soil issues, such as: 

  • Combat desertification;
  • Restore degraded soils;
  • Achieve greenhouse gas removal;
  • Reach good ecological and chemical status in surface and groundwaters; 
  • Reduce nutrient losses; and
  • Remediate contaminated sites.

These are all ambitious and important issues and the suggested objectives are often good, but concrete actions are rarely included. This probably reflects the fact that a lot of the member states and other actors have been opposed to opening the discussion on a soil directive again. So maybe this explains why the strategy mainly suggests soft actions, such as getting more data on soil condition, increasing public awareness and considering legally binding objectives for different things, rather than hard core binding actions. Maybe it is the only possible road ahead for getting a soil directive on the table. Time will tell. 

The Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre, BSC, welcomes the initiative on soils, since healthy soils are crucial for minimising nutrient losses to water and thereby reducing eutrophication. Good soil structure influences nutrient use efficiency, for instance by affecting manure management, reducing surface runoff of phosphorus and binding soil carbon.

Therefore, it is disappointing that the strategy limits its suggestions under the heading “Soil for healthy water resources” to stressing the need to coordinate water and soil policies and exchanging good practices. In the chapter on closing the nutrient and carbon circles (3.2.3 in the strategy) the Commission refers to other ongoing policy initiatives, for instance the revision of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, the Integrated Nutrient Management action and Farm to Fork objectives of reducing nutrient losses. All of these are of course important initiatives, but not enough to increase nutrient use efficiency. We would like to see actions, as for instance to deal with livestock densities in areas sensitive to nutrient leakage. 

We also applaud the inclusion of chemical pollution in the strategy. The use of sewage sludge on soils can lead to accumulation of chemical pollutants in both soils and crops. This practice can also contribute to the spread of microplastics in soils, which may further leak to the aquatic environment, including groundwater. The present revision of the sewage sludge directive must be made coherent with a soil strategy.

You can find the strategy here.