In the minds of many, soil is simply dirt, but without it we would all cease to exist. Unlike the water we drink and the air we breathe, soil is not protected in the EU and its quality is getting worse. This has to change, writes Balázs Horváth.
Balázs Horváth is senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
The headlines are full of stories about migration, food and climate change – soil, perhaps unsurprisingly, barely gets a mention in these stories, yet it is crucial to understanding all three issues.
Shockingly, the UK estimates that there are only 100 harvests left in its soil. More than 300 civil organisations, under the umbrella of People 4 Soil, are therefore launching a European Citizens’ Initiative this autumn, calling for soil to be protected everywhere in Europe.
The link between migration, climate change and soil may not be obvious at first, but researchers have shown that while some people leave their homes because of war, others are forced to trek halfway across the world because the increasingly poor state of their soils leaves them unable to produce food.
Scientists expect that climate change will increase migration of this kind, warning that land degradation could reduce global food productivity leading to a significant increase in world food prices which, in turn, would disproportionately affect the world’s poorest. This would likely result in greater hunger, violent social unrest and, ultimately, conflict.
Soil degradation also has a knock-on effect on climate change because soils store significant amounts of carbon. Indeed, EU soils store carbon that is equivalent to almost 50 times the EU’s annual greenhouse gas emissions and a release of just 0.1% of the carbon contained in European soils would equal the annual emissions of 100 million cars. In fact, further degradation of European soil will act against climate change mitigation objectives and increase the level of carbon in the atmosphere.
Thanks to numerous campaigns, the importance of bees in food production has reached the attention of the media, the general public and even policymakers, but the role of soil is rarely mentioned. This is tragic given that 98% of all global daily calories come from the soil.
Soil contains minerals, organic matter and rich biodiversity (soils host over one quarter of all biodiversity on Earth) that protect plants from diseases, provide them with water and nutrients, and help stop soil erosion.
Pesticides and chemical fertilisers kill life in the soil and plants become dependent on them. Caught in a vicious circle, farmers are forced to buy more expensive chemicals to keep up production rates, while ruining their main resources, namely living soil and biodiversity, and decreasing the quality of their products which miss the natural vitamins and nutrients.
If we want to continue farming in Europe, we need to act now to protect our soils by a transition from intensive, industrial agriculture in favour of methods like agro-ecology that include compost, green manure and crop rotation. And, as an increasing number of farmers are learning by doing, this does not mean reduced yields or income in the long term. But, this can only be achieved by a complete rethink of the current European agricultural policy which currently supports mainly intensive practices.
All in all, only EU-wide legal instruments can protect our soil. The European Commission proposed such an idea a decade ago, but it was blocked by a small number of member states and since then there has been no coordinated data collection on the state of European soils.
Earlier surveys show that 10-20% of land globally is already in bad shape, with over half of agricultural land worldwide moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. In the EU, more than a quarter of the land is affected by soil erosion caused by water.
The State of the Environment report published by the European Environment Agency in 2015 highlighted continuing soil degradation across Europe and suggested that without action the situation will get worse.
In short, soil is much more than dirt and deserves much better protection than it currently gets.