Europe must protect its soil

The health of the soil in Europe is in danger and the authorities are not doing enough to fix it. This is the warning issued by the European Court of Auditors on July 11, just a few days after the European Commission ordered a new set of measures to address the problem.

Auditors from the Court of Auditors argue that European Union regulations “often lack ambition and Member States do not focus funding on the areas with the most pressing land problems.” This claim is based on a recent report revealing that between 60% and 70% of the soils in Europe are in poor condition, partly due to inadequate soil and manure management practices.

The soil plays an essential role in terrestrial life, beyond just being the support where plants grow. It offers nutrients, water and oxygen necessary for its growth. However, the abuse of fertilizers in agriculture has a negative impact on water quality and on the diversity of animals and plants, as highlighted by the Court.

EU legislation, including that governing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Nitrates Directive, promote improvements in soil and manure management. According to the Court’s best estimates, CAP funding for soil health between 2014 and 2020 amounted to around €85 billion, while the Nitrates Directive sets a limit on the use of nitrogen from organic animal manure in contaminated areas.

Eva Lindström, member of the Court in charge of the report, has pointed out that “soil plays an essential role for life and is a non-renewable resource. In Europe, however, the soil is not healthy in large areas. This is a cry of alarm: it is time for the EU to roll up its sleeves and return our lands to a satisfactory state of health We cannot turn our backs on future generations Upcoming changes to EU law offer EU legislators the opportunity to raise land standards across Europe”.

In its report, the Court has also found that the EU’s mechanism for getting farmers to comply with environmental conditions, known as ‘cross compliance’, has the potential to address threats to soil, as the relevant rules apply to the 85% of the agricultural area. However, these conditions, which farmers must meet in order to receive payments under the CAP, are not sufficient.

The requirements that EU countries impose in relation to soil imply very little change in agronomic practices and can only bring about a marginal improvement in soil health. Despite some improvements introduced for the period 2023-2027, the changes implemented so far in some Member States are insufficient and may only have a modest impact on sustainable soil and manure management.

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