World Soil Day: a Reason to Celebrate

On December 5th,we celebrate World Soil Day, and this year we have one more reason to do so: the EU soil strategy. A document by the European Commission might not sound like a game changer, but it has the potential to be one. With a combination of new voluntary and legally binding measures, the strategy sets out concrete measures for protecting, restoring and sustainably using soils.

But let’s rewind. Scientists define soil like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, and pollution. This thin skin hosts a quarter of the world’s biological biodiversity, nourishing humanity and above ground biodiversity. This thin skin takes thousands of years to form.

It is under our feet, and it is literally the foundation of our life. Soil hosts a universe of microorganisms that provide the nutrients for all our food. Soil filters water fit for consumption. Soil stores as much carbon as all plants above ground and is critical in tackling the climate emergency. 300 scientists compiled a 2020 UN report describing the worsening state of soils as at least as important as the climate crisis and destruction of the natural world above ground.

Halting and reversing current trends of soil degradation could generate up to €1.2 trillion per year of economic benefits globally.

If that was not enough to convince us to all take action, it suffices to look at the costs of land and soil degradation. In the EU, around 60 to 70% of soils are not healthy and this costs €50 billion per year. About 1 billion tons of soil are washed away by erosion in the EU yearly, causing an estimated loss of agricultural production of €1.25 billion per year. Overall, 54% of the cost represents a loss of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, hydrological control, nutrient cycling and hosting soil biodiversity. The other half of the cost often comes at the expense of private parties and landowners due to a reduction in provisioning services such as biomass and raw materials.

The EU soil strategy clarifies that the cost of taking action is much smaller than the cost of inaction. Halting and reversing current trends of soil degradation could generate up to €1.2 trillion per year of economic benefits globally.

So far, the EU has had legislation to protect water and air, but it has no harmonised approach to soils. An attempt to so in the past failed among opposition by national governments. The EU soil strategy relaunches the work on soil, and includes a proposal for a complementary dedicated legal framework for soil health – the Soil Health Law.

The EU soil strategy is a welcome step towards safeguarding the foundation of our life. But there is something more: in a much clearer way than in other documents of the EU Green Deal, the soil strategy starts outlining sustainable practices in soil management, drawing a more precise line between what is sustainable and what is not. It talks about sustainable soil management, a set of practices that are part of broader agroecological principles, recalling that these principles are at the heart of the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, two cornerstones of the EU Green Deal. It connects the soil strategy to the current revision of the EU directive on the use of pesticides, a revision that should help achieve the objective of reducing by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 2030. It connects it to the Common Agricultural Policy, which accounts for a third of the overall EU budget and must be aligned to the ambitions of the Green Deal.

On December 5th we can celebrate, but the task of saving soils is far from over. Obstacles to an EU directive are still in place. The same lobbies that sunk a legislative proposal more than 10 years ago hold their ground and some governments joined their ranks. At the same time, ten member states have stated their support for a European soil directive, recognising that the health of soil cannot be solved only by action at national level, being a global issue.

So, let us celebrate this thin skin of the living world and join efforts to save it, for everyone’s sake.

If you’re curious to know more about soil, have a look at our position paper !

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