EU sets out first-ever soil law

THE European Commission has set out its plans for the continent’s first soil law, a package of measures for a sustainable use of key natural resources, which will also strengthen the resilience of EU food systems and farming.

Despite opposition to proposed laws on nature restoration, the European Commission had pressed ahead with its plans to restore degraded soils, which will help to regenerate biodiversity, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and ensure more sustainable food production.

The new soil monitoring law will require member states to monitor the health of their soils, fertiliser use and erosion and make the information available to farmers and other soil managers.

The law will also make sustainable soil management the norm and addresses situations of unacceptable health and environment risks due to soil contamination.

The proposals aim to boost innovation and sustainability, by enabling the safe use of technical progress in new genomic techniques, to enable developing climate-resilient crops and reducing the use of chemical pesticides, and by ensuring more sustainable, high-quality and diverse seeds and reproductive material for plants and forests.

The new measures also aim to reduce food and textile waste, which will contribute to a more efficient use of natural resources and a further reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from these sectors.

60 to 70% of soils in the EU are currently unhealthy. In addition, a billion tonnes of soil are washed away every year due to erosion, which means that the remaining fertile top layer is disappearing quickly. Costs associated with soil degradation are estimated at over €50 billion per year.

The first-ever EU legislation on soils provides a harmonised definition of soil health, puts in place a comprehensive and coherent monitoring framework and fosters sustainable soil management and remediation of contaminated sites.

The law brings several sources of soil data under one roof, combining soil sampling data from the EU’s Land Use and Coverage Area frame Survey (LUCAS) with satellite data from Copernicus, and national and private data. The ultimate goal is to achieve healthy EU soils by 2050, in line with the EU Zero Pollution ambition.

Soil data will support innovation, technological and organisational solutions, notably in farming practices. It will help farmers and other landowners implement the most appropriate treatment methods and help them increase soil fertility and yields, while minimising water and nutrient consumption. In addition, this data will improve our understanding of trends on droughts, water retention and erosion, strengthening disaster prevention and management. Healthy soils and better data provide additional income opportunities for farmers and land managers, who can be rewarded for carbon farming, receive payments for ecosystem services or for increasing the value of healthy soils and food produced on them. (The proposal does not impose any direct obligations on landowners and land managers including farmers.)

Member States will be expected to define positive and negative practices for soil management. They will also define regeneration measures to bring degraded soils back to a healthy condition, based on national soil health assessments. These assessments will also inform into other EU policies, such as LULUCF, CAP and water management.

The law also asks that Member States address unacceptable risks for human health and the environment due to soil contamination, guided by the polluter pays principle. As a result, Member States will need to identify, investigate, assess and clean up contaminated sites.

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