Soil is an essential ecosystem that delivers valuable services such as the provision of food, energy and raw materials, carbon sequestration, water purification, nutrient regulation, pest control, and support for biodiversity and recreation. In the EU, land and soil continue to be degraded by a wide range of human activities, often combined with other factors. In absence of a dedicated legislative framework, EU soil protection policy is shaped by the EU Soil Thematic Strategy and provisions in a number of other policy instruments, for instance, the Industrial Emissions Directive, the Environmental Liability Directive, the EU Biodiversity Strategy, the EU forest strategy and the Common Agricultural Policy.
In the context of the EU Soil Thematic Strategy and in parallel policy streams, a number of activities have been carried out by the EU for soil and land protection.
Land and soil degradation is a global concern. For instance, land degradation neutrality is one of the targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030). A UN Convention is dedicated to combat desertification (UNCCD) while the UNEP and FAO have dedicated activities on soil protection.
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Land is the solid surface of the Earth that is not permanently covered by water, while soil is the ecosystem in the uppermost layer of the ground in which plants can grow. Soil is composed of mineral particles, organic matter, water, air and living organisms.
Land degradation is a global problem, often caused by a combination of factors such as poor land management, unsustainable agricultural practices, pollution and deforestation. Land degradation may exacerbate the impacts of natural disasters and contributes to social issues such as migration. The EU suffers from different levels of land degradation, with 13 EU Member States having declared themselves as affected Parties under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), to which the EU itself is also party since 1998. Actions to address land degradation and desertification can offer co-benefits for other key environmental issues such as water pollution and scarcity, biodiversity loss, climate change, as well as ensuring food security. Recent major global assessments have significantly increased awareness of the impact and economic cost of land degradation.
An important element in land degradation is protecting soil as its degradation constitutes a serious threat for human health, food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the preservation of healthy ecosystems.
Soil is in fact an extremely complex, variable and living medium, but absolutely critical for life on Earth. It hosts 25% of the world biodiversity, it contains around twice the amount of carbon that is found in the atmosphere and three times the amount found in vegetation, and some 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced from our soils.
As soil formation is an extremely slow process, soil must be considered as a non-renewable resource. Soil serves as a platform for human activities and landscapes, as an archive of our cultural heritage and plays a central role as a habitat and gene pool. It stores, filters and transforms many substances, including water, nutrients and carbon. Soils are therefore crucial for climate change mitigation and adaptation, agricultural production and food security, nature and biodiversity preservation, and are the foundation of our health and our wealth. Soil functions are worthy of protection because of their socio-economic as well as environmental importance.
However, land and soils are also dramatically degrading at European and global level, as portrayed by the European Agency’s 2020 State of the Environment Report , the Special IPPC report on Climate Change and Land and the IPBES Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration. Erosion, loss of organic matter, compaction, salinization, landslides, contamination, sealing, desertification have negative impacts on human health, natural ecosystems and climate, as well as on our economy. Land and soil degradation have transboundary effects and they come with high costs. The main causes are poor land management, such as unsustainable farming (e.g. overgrazing) and forestry practices, land use change (e.g. deforestation, drainage of wetlands and conversion of permanent grasslands into arable land), construction activities and soil sealing, as well as pollution from industrial emissions to the atmosphere, poor waste management or contaminants present in fertilisers or sewage sludge that are applied to soil.
Land is clearly a finite resource and it is subject to competing pressures from urbanisation, infrastructure, increased food, feed, fibre and fuel production and the provision of key ecosystem services. But it's also a shrinking resource. Over 500 km2 of agriculture or natural land disappear every year in the EU, as it is converted into artificial areas. More EU land is affected by degradation all the time, and ecosystem services are lost as a result.
This is a global problem. Demand for areas to settle, grow food and biomass is rising around the world, and climate change is likely to impact negatively on land demand, availability and degradation. The EU can contribute to land degradation in third countries, as we are a net "importer" of land, embedded into imported products.
It’s Alive! Why Soil Is The Most Important Habitat You’ve Never Thought About.
The life in the soil is what gives us nutritious food, clean water, diverse plants and even medicines – not only: it can regulate the climate by storing carbon. But soil is being increasingly degraded by the unsustainable way in which we are managing soil and land. So we need to revert this negative trend and restore healthy soils, that will allow us to realize the European Green Deal, and secure human well-being for today and for tomorrow.
Video: Soil matters
Leaflet: Healthy soil: What’s in it for you?
23.07.2021 – The Commission has launched a call for tender for the provision of services to support and implement the LUCAS (Land Use/Cover Area frame statistical) 2022 Survey. Find out more.
28/04/2021: The public consultation on the New Soil Strategy is now closed. Thank you for having been so many to share your views by filling the online questionnaire!
02/02/2021: The public consultation on the New Soil Strategy is now open for your feedback! Share your views with us by filling the online questionnaire by April 27.
10/12/2020: The roadmap for the New Soil Strategy - healthy soil for a healthy life is closed now and provided feedback is available here. The open public consultation coming soon in all languages!
5/12/2020: The 5 December is the World Soil Day! And this year campaign is under the motto "Keep soils alive, protect soil biodiversity", aiming to raise awareness of the importance of soil biodiversity, the hidden world beneath our feet. Join the #WorldSoilDay campaign and share its material for the celebration.
4/12/2020: The launch of JRC's EU Soil Observatory took place on 4 December 2020. The new soil observatory is a dynamic and inclusive platform that will provide information and data needed to safeguard soils in the EU. Watch the event recording here.
22/10/2020: Have you missed our Green Week 2020 session on soil? Watch it here: It’s Alive! Why Soil Is The Most Important Habitat You’ve Never Thought About
20/05/2020: New EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 adopted, a comprehensive, ambitious, long-term plan for protecting nature and reversing the degradation of ecosystems, including a whole section on soil.
11/12/19: The European Green Deal has been adopted today. It resets the Commission’s commitment to tackling climate and environmental-related challenges that is this generation’s defining task.
5/4/2019: Conference: Brownfield redevelopment in the EU