The European Commission's in-house research body is currently analysing thousands of soil samples from across Europe to draw up a "chemical content map" of EU land.
The Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) has received some 25,400-odd samples of land, collected last year and weighing half a kilo each.
Their chemical content will be analysed as part of a major survey of EU land cover and usage across the 27 country bloc.
According to the JRC, the analysis will be completed by June 2011.
The possibilities in applying the first harmonised "topsoil database" of the EU 25 – Romania and Bulgaria did not participate in the survey – are numerous, "covering most soil functions, soil services and soil degradation processes," the JRC commented.
Such sampling may become a regular part of monitoring soil resources in the EU and will feed into climate change and biodiversity-related studies and assessments of soil degradation.
Hard data on soil quality is particularly valuable for the Commission's environment directorate as it tries to defend an EU directive on soil protection amid resistance from member states.
The EU executive argues that a directive on soil is necessary as national policies are not delivering on environmental goals and land management increasingly affects cross-border issues like climate change, biodiversity and water pollution.
Ten days ago, the JRC published the first ever indicator-based map of potential threats to soil biodiversity. Dubbed the Soil Biodiversity Atlas, the map identifies the main pressures on EU soils as resulting from land-use change, over-exploitation, changes in environmental conditions or geochemical properties.
The document stresses the importance of soil biodiversity in agriculture and the water and carbon cycles, and considers the economic value of soil biodiversity.
EU land cover and use
A Eurostat survey published yesterday (4 October) provides the first set of consistent, comparable figures on land cover and usage in the EU. So far, consistent figures only existed for agricultural land.
According to the survey, some 40% of the EU's total land area is covered by forests and other wooded areas, 24% by cropland, 20% by grassland, 6% by shrub land and 5% by water and wetland.
Only 4% of the EU's area is covered by built-up and other artificial cover, such as roofed constructions, yards, car parks, cemeteries, roads and rail networks.
Regarding socio-economic use, over 40% of land in Europe is used for agriculture and almost 30% for forestry. Use for residential, commercial and industrial purposes – including services, energy, transport and mining – accounts for just over 10% of the total land area.
Meanwhile, both the land coverage and the land's socio-economic usage vary widely across the bloc.
The member states with the highest proportions of land used for residential, commercial and industrial purposes are the Netherlands (37%) and Belgium (25%), whereas Spain and Latvia appear at the other end of the scale (both 6%).
The results stem from a large-scale land survey conducted in 2009 in EU 23 member states. According to Eurostat, Malta and Cyprus were not covered by the survey for methodological reasons, while data for Bulgaria and Romania will be released only later in 2010.
The survey follows pilots conducted in some member states and the time period of the survey to monitor changes in land cover is currently being discussed. It could range from three to five years, as land cover does not change that much.