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The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
In a Comment published in Nature today, JRC scientist Luca Montanarella calls for a voluntary international agreement to protect soil from erosion and degradation through a reinvigorated Global Soil Partnership.
Every year, the world loses 75 billion tonnes of crop soil as a result of erosion due by wind, water and through agriculture. That’s more than 205 million tonnes a day, and represents a cost of US$70 per person per year. As it is estimated to take about 100 years to form 1 cm of topsoil, fertile soil is being lost much faster than it can be replaced through natural processes. It is therefore effectively a non-renewable and limited natural resource, and needs to be protected.
As no binding international agreement for protecting soils exists, Luca argues that farmers need to be encouraged to apply sustainable management practices to reduce soil erosion. Failing this, he foresees increased poverty, hunger, conflict, land grabs and mass migration.
Luca refers the proposed EU Soil Framework Directive, which was withdrawn in 2014 due to resistance by several EU Member States who argued that soil is a local rather than a global governance issue. He makes the counterargument that soil is a shared resource that is essential for food, fibre and fuel, and therefore requires governance. As most soils are privately held, governance must be based on voluntary efforts.
The Global Soil Partnership (GSP) could help implement a voluntary system of global governance. The GSP is a voluntary body that was set up by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2011 to promote sustainable soil management. It is made up of seven Regional Soil Partnerships around the world that are tasked with taking concrete action based on GSP guidelines. Luca is the chair of the GSP’s Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), which was established in 2013 to provide scientific and technical guidance to policymakers. Its forthcoming ‘Status of the World’s Soil Resources’ report highlights serious concerns regarding global soil resources, such as widespread soil degradation and erosion, for which the ITPS is preparing practical recommendations.
Luca argues that the GSP is currently the best option for motivating landowners to commit to specific actions, which should enshrine soil management in national legislation, but it needs to prove that it can generate political will and raise funds to develop the Global Soil Information System and skills in developing countries. So far only 10% of the five-year budget of US$64 million that it is estimated to need has been raised from donors, mainly the European Commission.