Europe sets out soil protection plan

The EU has fleshed out its plans for protecting European soils from an onslaught of unsustainable agriculture, industrial pollution and development in its newly published proposals for a Soil Framework Directive.

While the directive would give member states a common reference for assessing and improving soil quality, the Commission has shied away from binding targets, leaving the level of protection to be decided at a national level.

The new legislation, which will take up to two years to implement at an EU level, will require European countries to compile inventories of land threatened by erosion or contaminated with pollutants and set out targets and programmes for preventing further decline.

Soil quality is only legally protected in nine EU member states, and even there legislation is targeted at single issues such as soil contamination. Meanwhile, 12% of Europe’s land area is subject to water erosion, around 5% is threatened by wind erosion, and the number of contaminated sites could be as high as 3.5m, the European Commission estimates.

Soil is “rapidly degrading” across the EU as unsustainable agriculture, logging, industrial pollution, tourism and urbanisation take their toll, the EC warned.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Soil is a prime example of the need to think global and act local. That is why we propose a common framework at EU level which will set a level playing field and aim at the same level of protection of soils throughout the EU, while leaving member states room to take into account national situations in their implementation.

“We want to ensure that citizens today and in the future benefit from soils that are able to perform a wide range of different functions, providing us with all the services that we need”.

Environmental organisations under the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) umbrella group gave the proposals a “cautious welcome,” but said it was too weak because of its failure to set minimum soil quality targets that could be enforced across the EU.

“Soil is a non-renewable resource which matters to us all. It’s being degraded at an alarming rate”, said John Hontelez, EEB’s secretary general.

“Sadly, at EU level, up to now soil has only been protected in an extremely patchy, and mostly indirect, manner by means of other laws.

“An EU soil protection law is long overdue and, once it’s finally adopted, ought to elicit the necessary steps to tackle the most pressing soil threats, such as carbon loss and contamination,” he said.

The current proposals cannot ensure action because they do not include binding targets and common standards, the EEB said, describing them as a “timid first step.”

Soils are a resource essential for food production, drinking water, biomass and raw materials, and their accelerating degradation affects human health as well as the economy and biodiversity, the Commission said in a statement.

For details of the Soil Strategy for Europe, comprising the Framework Directive and an Impact Assessment, see here.

Goska Romanowicz

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