Commission isn’t ready to bury soil directive

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The European Commission’s proposal for a soil directive has been stalled for more than six years, but Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik hopes the newly announced Environment Action Programme (EAP) will eventually revive negotiations on the controversial proposals.

Concern about the declining quality of farmland has prompted the Commission to propose changes in the post-2013 agricultural programme that would reduce the impact of intensive farming practices on soil. Meanwhile, Poto?nik is planning to introduce a formal communication on land as a resource in 2014.

The communication would build on existing resource protections contained in the EU’s Resource Efficiency Roadmap, the recently unveiled seventh EAP and initiatives on natural resource protection agreed at the Rio+20 conference earlier this year.

Among the main concerns in Europe, and globally, is erosion, declining soil quality due to intensive farming, and urban sprawl that is destroying productive farmland.

The 2014 communication “will aim at raising awareness, on the one hand, on the intrinsic importance of land within the EU and globally, and on the other hand, on the need for the EU to have a coherent and sustainable approach to land use and to ensure that policy formulation is targeted towards that goal,” Poto?nik told EURACTIV by e-mail.

The Commission is bruised by past experience in trying introducing a soil protection law, but Poto?nik told a recent conference on soil and land degradation that despite opposition, there was also strong support for EU action to protect and soil quality.

Though a highly technical topic, soil health is taking centre stage in discussions about food security. The proposal for reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy for 2014-2020 include provisions to link part of the direct payments to farmers to measures aimed at restoring land productivity through crop rotation and leaving 7% of farmland for natural buffers and habitats.

“Soil is becoming more and more limited and we need to treat this resource better,” said Georg Häusler, cabinet chief for Agricultural Commissioner Dacian Ciolo?. Speaking at a forum on food security hosted on 29 November by the Swiss mission to the EU, he said there is “enormous sleeping potential” in the land quality in eastern EU countries while yields have stagnated in the west.

The soil directive has languished since it was first introduced in 2006. Germany and Britain stymied the proposed legislation, claiming it was not the EU’s prerogative to dictate policies on land use.

The EU also failed to win binding international deals to protect land, water and other resources at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro.

World Soil Day

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, voicing its own concern about loss of productive land in developing countries, declared Wednesday (5 December) World Soil Day.

In a report issued a year ago, the Rome-based FAO warned that rising food production over the past half century is in peril because “in too many places, achievements have been associated with management practices that have degraded the land and water systems upon which food production depends.”

Erosion, farming practices that overuse chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the decline of natural habitats and cultivating crops that are incompatible with climate conditions are all cited by experts as reasons for poor soil conditions. Some 25% of the world’s farmland is less fertile today than it was 30 years ago, FAO data show.

The FAO’s State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture says no region is immune and the worst affected areas of Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and central United States “face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agriculture use and practices.”

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, speaking to the Conference on "Land and soil degradation – post Rio+20" in Brussels on 16 November, said: “Soil and land degradation is not a stand-alone issue. Better soil and land management can and ought to contribute to food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to preserving the natural resource base and fighting biodiversity losses. Stopping or at least strongly diminishing land and soil degradation is just as much about economic growth, poverty eradication and social justice as it is about the environment. It is about a transition to a green economy.

“It is true that, in Rio, it was not possible to agree to a set of clear intermediate operational goals to make the 'land-degradation neutral world' target more specific and easily understood by everybody. But, world leaders did agree to recognise the need for urgent action to reverse land degradation and to strive to achieve a ‘land-degradation neutral world’ in the context of sustainable development.”

Coen Ritsema, professor of soil physics and land management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says the role of the soil has been underestimated for years. "There are three UN-conventions: one about climate change, one about desertification and one about conservation of biodiversity. The soil should be a binding factor in all these debates, but has not received enough attention in the past," Ritsema said in a statement released on 5 December, World Soil Day.

The European Commission proposed a Framework Directive on Soil Protection in September 2006 as part of a broader soil strategy.

The strategy sets out a series of policies aimed at protecting soil and using it sustainably by preventing further soil degradation, preserving its functions and restoring degraded soils. The measures are supposed to be partly implemented via the proposed framework directive.

The European Parliament adopted a first-reading opinion on the proposal in November 2007 (EURACTIV 15/11/07) and extensive discussions between national delegations have taken place since 2007 under the Portuguese, French and Czech EU presidencies, without success.

A Czech progress report dated June 2009 details the main sticking points of the proposal but it failed to win the support of influential national governments. Germany and Britain in particularly argued that the EU does not have the power to legislate on soil and that such laws would interfere with domestic policy measures.

  • 2014: Communication on land as a resource

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