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Erosion, biodiversity, contamination and the declining state of soil in Europe

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Context - Soil is a vital resource for food security, but in Europe it is being degraded by pollution, overuse, and erosion.

How could soil be protected?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2012 by the European Environmental Agency (EEA): " The state of soil in Europe" 

  • Source document:EEA (2012)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 10 March 2017


Soil degradation in Europe has increased and will increase further if no action is taken. Soil degradation is driven or exacerbated by human activity together with projected climate change, individual extreme weather events which are becoming more frequent, and likely to have also negative effects on soils.

What are the key drivers of soil degradation in Europe?

SSoil is one of the planet’s invaluable resources, it performs key functions which underpin our societies, not the least of which is food production. In Europe, soil is being degraded by a wide range of factors, and this has considerable and environmental and economic consequences. Poor land management, such as deforestation, overgrazing, construction activities and forest fires are among the main causes of this situation.

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

  1. Biodiversity decline, from soil contamination, erosion, salinisation and sealing;
  2. Soil sealing induced by machinery compaction, which reduces water storage and makes soil less permeable to plant roots;
  3. Various types of contamination ;
  4. Erosion by wind or water;
  5. Landslides triggered by land abandonment and land-use change;
  6. Low levels of organic matter;
  7. Salinisation from irrigation water and fertilizers use;
  8. Sealing when soils are used for urban sprawl, industrial development or transport infrastructure.

Furthermore, other potential threats to soil integrity considered in this report including desertification, biofuels production, acidification and consequences for soils related to climate change/ . Climate change, in relation with more frequent and more severe droughts, may worsen soil degradation and its role in managing terrestrial fluxes of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

What are the main consequences of soil degradation?

Soil degradation leads to a decline in the ability of soil to carry out its ecosystem services. This has marked local, regional, European and global impacts and can contribute to food shortages, higher commodity prices, desertification and ecosystem destruction. For example, soil compaction can affect water infiltration capacity and so reduces water storage and conduct and make soil less permeable to plant roots, and also increase erosion risk by accelerating run‐off phenomena. Poor soil quality can also affect human health in several ways, leading to specific diseases or general illness generated by pathogenic agents or chemical contaminants. However, many of the relationships between soil quality and human health are unclear and require further research.

What is the role of the EU in its soil protection?

At the difference of the numerous policies and legislations regarding water, air, waste, chemicals, industrial pollution, 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 Soils Thematic Strategy which aimed at taking into account the full range of threats and ensuring that EU soils stay healthy for future generations.. It was noted that the.Common Agricultural Policy has a key role to play a.o. by encouraging farming practices that maintain soil fertility.

However, Soil Thematic Strategy Commission noted that there was a marked lack of awareness on the importance of soil and the need of soil protection and some five years after the adoption of this, the Commission in April 2014 took the decision to withdraw the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive as a number of countries argued that soil degradation does not have transboundary consequences and thus soil legislation should remain a matter of national competence only. Neverthelss, the Directorate General for Environment of the European Commission organised an EU Soil stakeholders' conference in Brussels in December 2016 with the objective to present the inventory of soil-related legislation at EU and national level and their gaps analysis1


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