A wheelbarrow of soil

Reflecting on the future of soils from Global Soil Week 2017

By Céline Charveriat and Catherine Bowyer.

I spent a few days in the Cevennes recently, and a friend told me a story about her great grandfather. The grandfather was a farm worker, and he worked very hard. He worked for a daily wage, but he wasn’t paid with money. He was paid with a wheelbarrow full of fertile soil. To my friend’s great grandfather soil was more valuable than money. It meant food, a livelihood and a future for his family.

This May, the soil science community gathered in Berlin for Global Soil Week – a conference sounding the alarm bell for soil sustainability in Europe and globally. As I prepared to speak at a panel discussion, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the value my friend’s grandfather’s placed on soil and the value many place on it today.  

Soil quality in Europe is deteriorating, and there are serious consequences to ignoring its importance in achieving a healthy environment and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Approximately 22% of all European land is affected by water and wind erosion. Around 45% of the mineral soils in Europe have low or very low organic carbon content, and an estimated 32-36% of European subsoils have high or very high susceptibility to compaction. These facts barely make the headlines and are low on politicians’ to do lists.

Soils deliver many important services to society: water and nutrient cycle regulation; food and fibre production; a basis for construction; habitats for numerous species; and carbon storage and sequestration.

These services are taken for granted, with many farming and forestry activities leading to soil degradation, threatening the very foundation for these crucial benefits. The fact that Europe lacks an adequate policy framework for conceptualising, understanding, integrating and monitoring soils makes the situation even worse.

Analysis by IEEP identified that the lack of a strategic policy framework both at EU level, and in many Member States, makes it difficult to tackle the multiples challenges related to soil. This hinders the integration of soil considerations into sectoral and environmental policies, which significantly impinges on the EU’s ability to form a clear implementation strategy for international priorities including the SDGs and climate mitigation targets. Clarity and direction in structuring regional and local action is also compromised.

However, there are also opportunities for change:

  • Increasing promotion of resource efficiency in agricultural systems, emphasising the value of soil resources
  • Emerging signals from the European Commission around the need to improve the coherence of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) prioritising the efficient use of soil resources
  • Increasing emphasis on soil’s ability to sequester carbon as part of a strategy to increase the contribution of land management to reducing GHG emissions
  • Increasing awareness of, and increasing societal value placed on, the wider ecosystem services provided by soils

What can we learn from the past in terms of what works to protect soils? Outcomes from IEEP’s research suggest:

  • Collective effort from well-grounded and operational relationships between key actors in a region or supply chain makes a difference.
  • Public, private actor interactions produce positive outcomes by, for example, organising actors around a supply chain or creating a certification or labelling scheme.
  • Governance and institutions are critical to securing durability and success of collective initiatives especially when market signals are weaker.
  • Increasing public awareness and appreciation of environmental and social goods help increase their provision.
  • More robust, spatially explicit and accessible data is essential to establish causal links between management actions and the provision of environmental goods/services.

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN adopted specific objectives around the protection of all soils, not just those affected by desertification. There is an emerging realisation that soil, and linked land use and management challenges, are fundamental to achieve sustainable development including in the areas of fighting against hunger, protecting life on land, moving to more responsible consumption and production, ensuring clean water and sanitation and addressing climate change. Addressing soil protection issues is fundamentally interconnected with our ability to deliver multiple societal needs.

The staff working document of the European Commission for SDGs implementation refers to the EU Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection. On its own, the strategy is unlikely to deliver the scale of change needed in Europe. It is no secret that some Member States do not want to give any competency to the European Commission regarding soils, for fears of having to address the question of soil decontamination.

The same document refers to the need to integrate the land use sector into the 2030 Climate and Energy Policy Framework and incentivise climate-friendly land use and forestry. Proposals for an EU Effort Sharing Regulation to reduce GHG emissions post-2020 are a good start but are not yet Paris-compatible. Getting the world to agree to net-zero emissions by mid-century, a key goal of the EU within the Paris agreement would require a step change in Europe and elsewhere. It is highly likely that the September 2018 IPCC 1.5 Degree report will point to the necessity of reducing emissions in agriculture and using agricultural land and forestry sectors as carbon sinks.

Member States are expected to update their low-carbon development plans in line with the mid-century net zero objectives of the Paris agreement. It is important that they integrate the best available science on the state of soils and potential for carbon sequestration in Europe into these planning processes as well as to ensure that mitigation actions work towards SDG 15.

As part of the discussions on the future of Europe, Europe, and the international community must move to value soils the way my friend’s grandfather did. These discussions are an opportunity to engage local authorities, Member States, business and NGOs about soil governance in Europe on the following questions:

  • What mix of competencies at what level will make the most difference for soils and deliver outcomes in line with international obligations and science?
  • Without greater EU competences, what are other credible pathways to stop and reverse degradation?
  • Could we use the option of multi-speed Europe, with frontrunners forging ahead, with the ability of other to join later?
  • How do we maximise opportunities for soil protection in future CAP funding and promote their proper consideration as part of low-carbon development pathways?
  • The status quo on soil protection no longer remains an option, in Europe and elsewhere. It is now time for action.

This blog post was written by Céline Charveriat and Catherine Bowyer. It is based on IEEP’s research including: work on the Soil Inventory for Europe and Pegasus – Public Ecosystem Goods and Services from Land Management as well as remarks at Global Soil Week. IEEP will continue to analyse soil protection issues as part of the iSQAPER consortium developing new tools for the analysis of soil health and policy delivery.

www.ieep.eu