This article is part of our special report What’s on the ‘horizon’ for agriculture?.
The European Union is stepping up efforts on soil health research with the announcement of a new Horizon Europe mission, which will also provide key funding for the promotion of carbon farming.
The new €320 million Horizon Europe mission, announced at the end of September, aims to spur the transition to healthy soils by 2030, in line with Green Deal commitments for climate, biodiversity, zero pollution, and sustainable food systems.
The funding from the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation will support living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils.
According to the European Commission, the programme aims to engage with people and create effective partnerships to protect and restore soils across sectors and territories.
In this way, it contributes to targets on sustainable farming, biodiversity, and zero-pollution set by the bloc’s flagship policy, the European Green Deal.
The measure is set to complement the EU’s soil strategy, which, together with the recently launched European Soil Observatory, will form part of a comprehensive framework to address soil and land stewardship at a large scale across land uses.
Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius has previously stressed the importance of research “to foster the transition to sustainable soil management in agricultural land.”
“Farmers will be closely involved and will benefit from investments in knowledge exchange and development,” he said during his presentation of the Commission’s new soil strategy on 17 November.
The European Commission estimates that costs associated with soil degradation in the EU exceed €50 billion per year. Moreover, 60-70% of soils in Europe are considered to be “unhealthy”.
Through the research funding provided by the soil mission, the EU now hopes to bring the percentage of healthy soils up to at least 75% in each EU member state.
Poor soil health can affect ecosystem services such as clean water, biodiversity, and climate regulation.
Carbon farming strategy
A key area of research and innovation to be funded by the mission is carbon farming, according to a leaked draft of the carbon strategy, which was first obtained by French news site Contexte.
To this end, the living laboratories and lighthouses programme is set to support will “serve to test, demonstrate and upscale solutions for carbon farming,” the document reads.
In future programming periods, the Commission will increase the focus on carbon farming within Horizon Europe to develop digital and data technologies for more efficient carbon removal and better emissions estimates.
Apart from carbon farming, the mission is also set to “support efforts for harmonised soil monitoring in Europe,” according to the draft.
According to the Commission, such research has various benefits. The knowledge and tools developed on this basis can serve to develop soil, further enhancing production systems or enhancing the role of livestock in soil management.
In the Horizon Europe mission, “living labs” and “lighthouses” are “spaces for co-innovation through participatory, transdisciplinary and systemic research.”
In practice, these living labs are set to allow landowners and land managers and other stakeholders, public authorities and citizens to work together with researchers from multiple disciplines.
Lighthouses are envisioned as spaces for demonstrating solutions, training, and communication. According to the mission draft, this can involve showcasing best practices or building partnerships across value chains.
The plans for a soil mission were welcomed by several organisations involved in the planning process through an advisory expert panel.
The mission focuses “on mobilising and creating an enabling environment for sustainable soil management throughout the EU looking at public policies, investments, citizen engagement, and information campaigns,” as stated by the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN) reads.
The regional and local levels are “crucial to achieving long-term impact,” it goes on to add.
The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) also welcomed the launch of the soil mission, saying that the focus on living labs and lighthouses was a “strong suit” of the programme.
The mission can play a role in enhancing the soil strategy if it is used “to make updated evidence and sustainable solutions available to policymakers,” a spokesperson told EURACTIV.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Natasha Foote/ Alice Taylor]