Soil is the very basis for the food we grow as well as for the production of feed, textiles, wood and other materials. It provides us with clean water, hosts biodiversity, recycles nutrients, regulates climate and is part of our landscapes and cultural heritage. Soil is important for our well-being and the balance of ecosystems in our planet.
This natural resource is fragile and finite, and needs to be carefully managed and protected. In the EU we lose every year through water erosion alone the equivalent of a one metre-depth soil on an area corresponding to the size of the city of Berlin. An increasing population, which requires more land for food production, urbanisation and industries, is putting our soil under additional pressure.
It can take up to 1,000 years to produce 1cm of fertile soil but only a couple of years to lose it. We need to act to preserve and restore our soils.
What is the CAP doing to protect our soil?
At a European level, the common agricultural policy (CAP) has put in place various instruments to promote a sustainable use of soils. The principle of cross-compliance links direct payments to good farming practices that ensure basic standards on the environment and climate, food safety, animal and plant health, animal welfare and help maintain land in good agricultural and environmental condition. It therefore sets a baseline for agri-environment measures, and encourages sustainable management and use of soils usage.
Direct payments are also available to farmers if they comply with so-called greening measures, which contribute to soil health. These measures, which account for 30% of direct payments, require farmers to diversify crops, maintain permanent grassland and to dedicate 5% of arable land to 'ecological focus areas'. These actions contribute to making soil more resilient, conserving soil carbon and protecting biodiversity.
Soil protection is also embedded in rural development programmes, funded by the European agricultural fund for rural development and managed by member states themselves. The promotion of resource efficiency and restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems related to agriculture are two out of six key priority areas for rural development. Soils are clearly at the centre of these measures.
Soil preservation in the future
Environmental care, climate change action, and landscapes and biodiversity preservation are three of the nine objectives of the future CAP. The future CAP will help the sustainable management and efficient use of our soils using an evidence-and performance-based approach, underpinned by digitisation.
The new ‘conditionality’ framework of the future CAP supports improved soil quality and protection, and increased carbon sequestration through better land use and cover management. Farmers must comply with good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs), linked to their direct income support. Soil specific GAECs include protection of peatlands and wetlands, crop rotation (replaces crop diversification), minimum land management under tillage to reduce soil degradation, and soil cover. In addition, there is now a compulsory GAEC requirement for all farmers to use the Farm Sustainability Tool (FaST) for developing their nutrient management plans. The tool compiles information such as satellite data, soil sampling and land parcel information to help farmers make informed and targeted decisions on their nutrient requirements.
The future CAP also incorporates a new and innovative voluntary framework under Pillar 1 and Pillar 2. Pillar 1 ‘eco-schemes’ and Pillar 2 ‘agri-environment-climate measures’ incentivise and/or reward farmers and beneficiaries for voluntarily going beyond the mandatory requirements of ‘conditionality’ as a means of enhancing their environmental and climate performance. Each member state designs these schemes in line with their local needs and conditions. Enhanced management of permanent pastures, organic farming, afforestation and the creation of woodlands, agroecology and agroforestry, precision farming, are just some examples of beneficial soil farming practices that member states could offer.
Digitalisation is a crosscutting objective of the future CAP and plays a central role in helping achieve the ambitious goals of the future CAP. Digitalisation aims to optimise soil fertility and reduce pollution by supporting better farm management and using the right amount of inputs in the right place at the right time. Precision agriculture involves using digital techniques for monitoring and accurately optimising agricultural production processes to maximise yields using fewer inputs (e.g. fertilisers and pesticides).
Collectively, the future CAP will support better agronomic and environmental performance of farms through a more targeted, ambitious, and flexible approach that gives the responsibility to member states to design a mix of schemes that meet EU-level environmental and climate objectives. As the schemes will be tailored to local needs and conditions this will help create favourable conditions for improving soil fertility and structure, reducing soil erosion and desertification, better nutrient management, and enhancing soil carbon storage.
Researching and innovating for the future of our soil
Research and innovation is also focusing on sustainable soil management.
The European Commission is proposing to implement a “mission” in the area of Soil Health and Food, as part of Horizon Europe – the next research and innovation framework programme. ‘Missions’ are a new instrument for research and innovation to deliver solutions that matter in our day-to-day lives.
A mission in the area of soil health and food will raise awareness on the importance of soils, engage with citizens, create knowledge and develop a range of solutions for sustainable soil management across Europe. As a first step, a group of 15 independent experts is working on developing ideas for a specific mission. Stakeholders and citizens will also engage in discussions as well as in the design and implementation of activities. Additionally, farmers and foresters will have an important role to play as they are key in the preservation and protection of our soil.
The agricultural European innovation partnership (EIP-AGRI) is also promoting healthy soils. Several expert groups (or ‘focus groups’) are working on soil either directly or indirectly. For instance, one of these groups has produced a brochure on 'Soil organic matter matters'. In addition, a number of local innovation projects (so called operational groups) are also working on this issue. For example, an EU-funded operational group in the UK is working on 'Cover crop management for improved soil biology'. It is seeking to compare the impact of different methods of cover crop – a crop grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil - management on soil biology.
Your opinion counts! What do you know about soils? What do you expect from a mission in the area of Soil health and food?
Complete the survey and let us know what you think by 19 January 2020.
5 December 2019