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European soil health framework: why soil matters - the local and regional perspectives

The European Commission's initiative to establish a coherent and integrated EU soil protection framework aiming for healthy soils by 2050 has garnered diverging acknowledgment and support. While the questions remains whether the proposal is ambitious enough, the fact that this initiative recognises soil as a fundamental pillar of the European economy, vital for achieving climate neutrality and zero pollution, halting biodiversity loss, ensuring food and water security and preserving public health, is already a step in the right direction.

Our starting point is not a good one: today, up to 70% of soils across the EU are estimated to be in an unhealthy state, with the costs of inaction on soil degradation exceeding EUR 50 billion per year. The European Green Deal's objectives, including climate neutrality, zero pollution, biodiversity restoration and sustainable food systems, hinge upon healthy soils. Hence, any comprehensive soil policy must reflect the diverse local and territorial dimensions, encompassing varying ecosystems, soil compositions, land uses and climatic conditions. In the light of this, the critical role of local and regional authorities (LRAs) in implementing sustainable soil management practices, particularly in less developed regions, cannot be overstated.

While welcoming the proposed Soil Monitoring Law as a pivotal first step, we in the European Committee of the Regions, as the voice of European cities and regions, still find it important to emphasise the need for specific support and capacity-building initiatives for LRAs. And while fully understanding that monitoring should be a first step towards improving the health of soil, we see the need to establish soil districts and keep any targets of improving soil health close to the territories to which those targets apply.

Our starting point is not a good one: today, up to 70% of soils across the EU are estimated to be in an unhealthy state, with the costs of inaction on soil degradation exceeding EUR 50 billion per year.

According to the European Commission's proposal, "Soil districts should constitute the basic governance units to manage soils and to take measures to comply with the requirements laid down in this Directive, in particular with regard to the monitoring and assessment of soil health".

As local and regional authorities, we are very well aware of the multitude of related regulations, such as those addressing biodiversity conservation, pollution prevention and circularity in agriculture, that are expected to be implemented in the coming years. If we do not ensure synergies with the regulation on improving soil health and the already existing legislation, full and current implementation in practice will be endangered.

Furthermore, technical and financial support for soil health initiatives, including nature-positive solutions such as community gardens and regenerative farms, is imperative to ensure widespread adoption. Collaboration with the European Soil Mission and leveraging existing tools such as the common agricultural policy and Horizon Europe can enhance local, regional and national action towards healthy soils by 2050.

Despite its paramount importance, soil health remains an overlooked issue. Many stakeholders perceive it as a luxury, rather than the basis needed for sustainable development. So we see a clear need to increase awareness among land managers and the general public, and we emphasise the role of education and engagement in fostering new business models and sustainable practices. Awareness and education are a cornerstone of the required buy-in of all the actors that live from land, but also the wider society whose lives will be impacted if we do not act appropriately now.

In the light of the increasing threat from climate change, I find it important to stress the need for land set-asides for climate adaptation measures and the importance of stable soil in mitigating erosion and landslides' effects that an increasing number of our communities are exposed to, or will be in the near future. However, a balanced approach considering administrative and financial burdens, alongside a clear delineation of responsibilities and the application of the polluter-pays principle, is essential.

Unsustainable soil management poses significant threats to food security, biodiversity and climate resilience. But we are also aware that, without sustained financial assistance for soil managers and without the current involvement of LRAs in promoting sustainable soil practices and capacity building, we will not get far.

Despite its paramount importance, soil health remains an overlooked issue. Many stakeholders perceive it as a luxury, rather than the basis needed for sustainable development.

We are also aware that, without sustained financial assistance for soil managers and without the current involvement of LRAs in promoting sustainable soil practices and capacity building, we will not get far.

In addition to support measures, we call for practical tools such as a sustainable soil management toolbox, accessible through a digital soil health data portal. As those in charge of spatial planning, we are very well aware that the quality of soil cannot be categorised in oversimplified terms' the reality on the ground demands an assessment model that provides a nuanced overview of soil health status.

However, we strongly believe that, by addressing these multifaceted challenges and leveraging collaborative efforts at all levels, the EU can pave the way towards achieving its ambitious soil health targets and safeguarding its environmental and socioeconomic resilience.

Frida Nilsson is a member of Lidköping municipal council (Sweden), she is the CoRs' rapporteur on soil monitoring and resilience. Her opinion is scheduled for adoption by the committee's plenary in June 2024.

This article appears in Take no land no more: soil matte

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