Farming, erosion, biodiversity or contamination: the declining state of soil in Europe

Highlights by GreenFacts from a report issued by joined forces of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre:  The state of soil in Europe

 http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/jrc/downloads/jrc_reference_report_2012_02_soil.pdf

Eight major aspects of soil degradation in Europe have been identified :  biodiversity decline, compaction, contamination, erosion, landslides, organic matter decline, salinisation and sealing . Further, acidification, desertification or biofuels production are other potential threats to soil integrity considered in this report. All these problems have considerable economic and environmental consequences and could eventually compromise food production.  Poor land management, such as deforestation, overgrazing, construction activities and forest fires are among the main causes of this situation.

1. The key drivers of soil degradation in Europe

Soil is one of the planet’s invaluable resources but continues to be degraded in Europe. Together, the mineral particles, water, air, organic matter, and living organisms that constitute soil perform key functions which underpin our society.

 The 8 main major aspects identified in the report as drivers of soil degradation are:

1. Biodiversity decline, induced by soil contamination, erosion, salinisation and sealing;

2. Compaction  induced by machinery use which reduces water storage and conduct and make soil less permeable to plant roots;

3. Contamination whichafter 200 years of industrialisation, is a widespread problem in Europe, the most frequent contaminants being heavy metals and mineral oil;

4. Erosion by wind or water with about 16% of total land area in Europe (except Russia) affected in the nineties;

5. Landslides triggered by land abandonment and land-use change, more frequently in areas with erodible soils or clay-based sub-soils ;.

6. Organic matter, an  issue driven mainly by inappropriate management of irrigated agricultural soil. About 45% of soils in Europe, says the report, content only between 0 and 2% of organic carbon, particularly in the southern Europe but also in the UK, Germany Norway and Belgium;

7. Salinisation is mainly originating from irrigation water and fertilizers;

8. Sealing when agricultural or non-developed land is used for urban sprawl, industrial development or transport infrastructure.

Furthermore, climate change may worsen soil degradation, underlines the report, related to more frequent and more severe droughts.

2. The essential role of the EU in its soil protection   

At the difference of the numerous policies and legislations regarding water, air, waste, chemicals, industrial polution, nature protection, pesticides and agriculture, there is no specific EU legislation specifically targeting the protection of soil.

In response to this situation, the EU Commission adopted in 2006 a Thematic Strategy which aims at taking into account the full range of threats and ensuring that EU soils stay healthy for future generations. The strategy encompass a common and comprehensive approach to soil protection focusing on soil functions structured along three lines : identification of the problem,  preventive and operational measures oriented towards each of the 8 main threats identified.

The report undelines that the Common Agricultural Policy has a key role to play a.o. by encouraging farming practices that maintain soil fertility. Another pillar of the Soil Thematic strategy is targeted research to develop the kowledge basis necessary to tackle the issue : Biosoil, EcoFINDER, ENVASSO, geoland2, RAMsoil and many other projects.  The focus is placed in particular on the identification of the appropriate indicators of soil integrity.

Meanwhile, the European Commission Thematic Strategy noted a marked lack of awareness on the importance of soil and the need of soil protection an stressed the need for measures to improve knowledge and exchange of information on best practices to fill this gap.

For further information on the threats to Europe’s soils, see also the 2010 EEA assessment The European environment – state and outlook 2010 (1)  which includes a summary of key facts and key messages.

Reference :  http://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/soer/europe/soil/key-facts

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