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An EU strategy for soil protection

Soil is not an easily renewable resource and it takes more than two thousand years to form just 10 cm of fertile soil. In a strategy document, the European Commission intends to give soil the same level of protection as the atmosphere, water and marine environment. This Strategy, which will be an integral part of the implementation of the European Green Deal, recognises that healthy soils contribute to a number of EU climate, biodiversity and economic goals. This major challenge requires inclusive and broad governance arrangements at the national, EU and global level

by Matteo Monni
December 2021 | Back

When we think of the impact of human activities on the ecosystems of our planet, the collective imagination immediately refers to certain well-known dynamics. First and foremost is air pollution due to climate-changing emissions, fine dust, toxic gases and so on. Then we move on to sea and inland waters plagued by industrial spills, leaching from landfills, eutrophication from fertilisers, plastic dispersion, etc. Finally, we come to the land, a place that suffers from overbuilding, deforestation, landscape destruction and so on. Instead, as the European Commission says, "Too few people know that our future depends on the thin layer beneath our feet". In fact, the importance of soils is dangerously underestimated, as they are unscrupulously depleted and irreversibly compromised everywhere, when it is scientifically proven that it takes thousands of years to produce just a few centimetres of soil.

To ensure that the vital functions of soil play their rightful role in regulating the Earth's balance, the EU Commission recently approved (17 November 2021) a 2030 Strategy on Healthy Soils for People, Food, Nature and Climate.

The main objective is to ensure that by 2050, all European Union Member States are equipped to eliminate soil consumption (zero net land take) and improve soil conditions through concrete actions, most of which will be implemented by 2030. 

First of all, it should be noted that over 25% of the planet's total biodiversity is to be found in the various soil horizons, which vary in thickness from a few centimetres to several metres. This forms the basis of the food chains that have always served to feed humanity directly and indirectly. Humanity is not only growing steadily - the world's population is expected to be around 10 billion by 2050 - but also aspires to a more equitable distribution of food and water in terms of quality and quantity.

Another important aspect is that soils - thanks to those in good condition - constitute the largest carbon store on the planet. Protecting soil conservation is therefore a key tool in the huge challenge of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Soil is not an easily renewable resource and it takes more than two thousand years to form 10 cm of soil. A study conducted by the ISNP (Istituto Sprimentale per la Nutrizione delle Piante - Specialised Institute for Plant Nutrition) dates back to 2000, according to which, in Italy, a 0.14% increase in the organic carbon content of agricultural soils is equivalent to the absorption of over 400 thousand Gg CO2, an amount of the same order of magnitude as the total annual carbon dioxide emissions of our country. To date, despite the fact that since the Kyoto Convention (1997) agriculture has been recognised as playing an active role in processes related to global warming, between the two possible options - reducing emissions and increasing carbon sequestration in the terrestrial compartment - the first has clearly prevailed. The "carbon sink" approach - always considered of great importance in the Conferences of the Parties - has been practically limited to the management of forest resources (forestation, reforestation and deforestation). Finally, this Strategy, which will be an integral part of the implementation of the European Green Deal, recognises that healthy soils contribute in the long term to some of the EU's climate, biodiversity and economic goals. Here, too, time is running out, as soils across Europe today are exposed to worrying phenomena of constant degradation. According to estimates, between 60 and 70% of soils are affected by erosion, compaction, reduction of organic matter, pollution, loss of biodiversity, salinisation and sealing. As far as Italy is concerned, 21.3% of its territory has been considered to be potentially at risk of desertification, partly due to natural causes, and 41% of these areas are in the central and southern regions. 4.3% of Italy's territory is already infertile, while 4.7% has already suffered from desertification.

As usual, this is all due to the ongoing unsustainable practices mainly linked to over-exploitation. For example, in Europe, erosion takes away about one billion tonnes of soil every year, with a net loss of more than 400 km2 of land between 2012 and 2018.

Among the many measures to be taken to counter the impacts of such phenomena, one useful tool is certainly the increasingly widespread use of modern mechanization. We know that the integration of precision agriculture, based on the use of cutting-edge technology, with forms of conservation agriculture gives high performance in terms of productivity, input reduction and soil fertility preservation. Unfortunately, this aspect - probably included in the broad category of AKIS (Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System) - is not clearly and explicitly expressed in the Strategy in question.

To put the problem in economic terms, it is estimated that the cost associated with soil degradation in the EU may exceed €50 billion per year. While the ecosystem services associated with cropland and grassland are estimated at €76 billion per year, less than a third of which is generated by agricultural production.

Therefore, investing in soil protection is also an economically beneficial action, as many sectors of the economy can be supported on soil, while soil degradation costs the EU tens of billions of euros every year.

For example, according to the 7th Report on the Bioeconomy in Europe, produced by Intesa Sanpaolo's Studies and Research Department, in collaboration with the SPRING Cluster and Assobiotec-Federchimica, the bioeconomy in Italy has a production value of €317 billion (10.2% of the total) and employs over 2 million people. What is more, during the pandemic, the bioeconomy proved to be a resilient sector.

For these reasons, the possibility of correctly capitalising on the value of soil must be considered with a view to making our close relationship, if not dependence, on this natural resource more visible. This requires urgent attention from governments, parliaments, public authorities at all levels, as well as from businesses, land users, local communities and citizens.

Furthermore, Strategy does not overlook the obvious link between healthy soil management practices and increased biodiversity, which, for the same crop yields, significantly reduces the need for external inputs (e.g. pesticides and fertilisers). Firmly countering the global trend of soil degradation could generate up to EUR 1.2 trillion per year in economic benefits associated with the positive externalities generated. On the other hand, it is clear that the cost of not taking action against this phenomenon - in Europe six times the cost of the necessary measures - generates much more serious risks than purely economic ones, putting food safety and the nutritional value of products at risk.

In conclusion, with a view to activating concrete measures to protect, restore and use soils in a sustainable way, the Strategy ties in with other EU policies stemming from the European Green Deal, with the ambition of setting up an internationally replicable model.

Some actions to be carried out soon:

• ‑Present a European law for the protection of soil health by 2023, incorporating all the contents of the Strategy;

• ‑Promote good European soil management practices through the CAP;

• ‑Promote the accumulation of organic carbon in soils also through legislative actions;

• ‑Establish a 'passport for excavated earth' for reuse in a circular economy in the soil;

• ‑Implement specific measures for the restoration of degraded soils and the remediation of contaminated sites;

• ‑Develop methodologies for assessing and preventing soil degradation to prevent desertification;

• ‑Strengthen soil research activities (data collection and monitoring);

• ‑Allocate financial resources to raise awareness in civil society of the importance of soil as a resource.



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