A new report published by the European Parliament’s committee responsible for scrutinising the European Commission’s agricultural policies has highlighted the threats facing soils across Europe.
The report – prepared by academic experts from Wageningen University, Aarhus University and the University of Cordoba – was presented to the European Parliament on 20th June and included a number of policy recommendations.
The experts emphasise the needs to reframe how we think about soil preservation to include the protection of ecosystem services provided by soils. These services include the provision of harvestable crops, clean fresh water and nutrients for plants and animals, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of a stable climate.
Soils and soil ecosystem services in Europe are faced with numerous threats that limit their capacity to function and prospects to sustain into the future. Intensification of agriculture, urbanisation and land grabbing, and poor management practices have led to widespread reduction in soil fertility, nutrient content and biodiversity.
We are also seeing widespread destruction of soil due to erosion, compaction, salinisation and desertification.
Protection of organic-rich soils a priority
One of the primary threats identified in the report is the loss of soils with high organic carbon content. EU soils contain more than 70,000 million tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 2,000 million tonnes of carbon emitted each year by Member States.
If we were to allow the release of even a fraction of this soil carbon to the atmosphere, we would easily undo all emissions reduction measures in other sectors.
Peatlands are the most efficient store of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems and Northern European peatlands represent almost 4 per cent of this global carbon reservoir.
Peatlands not only lock away carbon that will otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere but pristine peatlands also sequester 350 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally.
Many European peatlands have been degraded by drainage activities and associated spread of agriculture and other industries.
Agro-foresty and silvopastoral systems are highly productive agricultural lands and also have high carbon content. The loss of productive agricultural land to urbanisation and land sealing – trapping of soil beneath asphalt and concrete – is a major threat to these areas.
Given the projected substantial increases in global food demand, pressures on biodiversity and our continued commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, the report states that we must preserve our most productive and carbon-rich soils.
Topsoil being washed away, subsoil under pressure
Twenty-two per cent of European land is affected by erosion from water and wind, a large proportion of which is directly related to conventional tillage activities. Transitioning to the use of no-tillage or minimal tillage practices would reduce the erosion of topsoil.
The increased use of catch crops and cover crops instead of traditional bare fallow approaches would also help reduce erosion. Over time, there would be the added benefit of increased nutrient, organic and water content of soils.
Policy measures that enforce adaption to these farming practices will be needed. The report also proposes the potential establishment of formal vulnerable zones.
About one-third of European soils, specifically the subsoil lying underneath topsoil, are badly impacted by compaction caused by heavy machinery. The continual pressure to increase labour productivity is driving this increased mechanization of agriculture.
The report calls for statutory maximum permissible limits to the wheel load carrying capacity for traffic on agricultural soils.
Moving towards agroecological practices
This reports adds to previously published research to conclude that we need to transition from conventional soil management practices to ecologically informed practices that improve soil quality. These include conservation agriculture and organic farming.
While many of the threats to soil traverse political borders, soil is undoubtedly more challenging to manage than water or air. This is due to the substantial geographic variation in soil parent material, climate, topography and historical management and usage.
The diverse nature of soil type and land usage across Europe necessitates that any policies must rank and implement measures based on local requirements.
The AGRI report recommends a ‘two-pronged’ approach – promotion and enforcement of local suitable practices at the farm level and the monitoring and evaluation at the catchment scale to test impacts of measures on ecosystem services.
The time for awareness and voluntary action has passed, the time for legislation long overdue
The AGRI report found – based on a survey of thousands of European farmers – that there is generally a high level of awareness among farmers about the importance of soils and the need for their protection.
The timescale of the proposed ‘no net land-take’ by 2050 – a target put forward in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (COM 571/2011) – was also called into question. It is simply too long given the scale of the threat facing soils across Europe.
The EU Seventh Environment Action Programme states that sustainable soil management, soil protection and remediation of contaminated sites should be underway by 2020.
The EU has also signed up for the Sustainable Development Goals, which include elements of sustainable agriculture and soil protection. However, none of these initiatives includes legally binding provisions.
The People4Soil campaign is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling on the Commission to provide for such a legally binding framework.
The ECI is the EU’s direct democracy platform, enabling citizens to participate in the development of EU polices by petitioning the European Commission to make a legislative proposal.
If a petition receives one million signatures from European citizens from a least 7 out of the 28 Member States , within one year, the Commission is obliged to meet with the organisers and hold a public hearing on the proposals before deciding whether or not to propose new legislation on the issue.
People4Soil is supported by more than 500 organisations across Europe and needs its 1 million signatures by September 2017. Please sign the petition by following this link and you can do your part to help protect soils across Europe.
A version of this article appears in the Green News on June 22nd, 2017.