There is considerable scope to improve soil health in Europe, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors. The EU’s financial watchdog is critical of the bloc’s efforts to date to ensure sustainable soil management, and finds that the European Commission and EU countries did not make enough use of the financial and law-making tools at their disposal. The auditors found that EU standards are frequently unambitious, and that member states do not target funding towards areas with the most pressing soil problems. The report follows an analysis which shows that between 60 % and 70 % of soils in Europe are unhealthy, in part due to poor soil and manure management practices.
Soil supplies nutrients, water, oxygen and a place for plants to grow. However, the excessive use of fertilisers in farming has a negative impact on water quality and the variety of plant and animal life. EU rules, such as those governing the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the Nitrates Directive, encourage improvements in soil and manure management. The auditors’ best estimate of the amount of CAP funding dedicated to soil health between 2014 and 2020 is around €85 billion, and the Nitrates Directive limits the use of nitrogen from livestock manure in polluted areas.
“Soil is essential for life and a non-renewable resource,” said Eva Lindström, the ECA member in charge of the report. “But in Europe, large areas of soil are unhealthy. This should serve as a wake-up call for the EU to roll up its sleeves and bring our soils back to good health. We cannot turn our back on future generations. The upcoming changes to EU rules are an opportunity for EU lawmakers to raise soil standards across Europe.”
The auditors found that the EU’s tool for ensuring that farmers comply with environmental conditions – “cross-compliance” – has the potential to address threats to soil, as its standards apply to 85 % of farmland. However, these conditions, which farmers must meet to receive payments under the CAP, do not go far enough. The requirements that EU countries set on soil scarcely require any changes in farming practices, and may only marginally improve soil health. While some improvements have been made for the 2023-2027 period, the changes made up to now in some member states are insufficient and may have only a small impact on sustainable soil and manure management.
EU countries should have allocated funding to areas with acute soil problems. However, they only channelled a small proportion of their EU rural development funds – which are used to support voluntary environmentally friendly farming – in this way. Their rural development programmes contained few manure management measures, despite known problems with nitrogen surpluses.
The Commission struggles to provide an overview of how EU countries apply manure management requirements, because they provide incomplete data. These gaps also mean that EU averages cannot be calculated. In addition, derogations render the restrictions on applying manure less effective. For example, soil pollution increased in farms that received derogations on nitrogen limits. The auditors also note that infringement procedures against countries in respect of the Nitrates Directive are very lengthy.
The EU is committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, seven of which have a direct or indirect impact on soil. However, there is currently no agreed EU-wide definition of sustainable soil management. The Commission has been preparing a legislative initiative on protecting, managing and restoring EU soils, and has just published a proposal for a new EU directive on soil health, which will be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU in the months to come. The EU’s objective is to achieve healthy soils by 2050.
Research shows that the soil ecosystem in Europe will continue to degrade due to different factors. About 25 % of EU land exceeds the recommended sustainable threshold for erosion, and most EU soils are also at risk of biodiversity loss. Soil needs nitrogen to allow plants to grow. A lack of nitrogen can lead to soil degradation, while too much of it can cause water pollution and eutrophication. The most polluting values in the 2012-2015 period in the EU were recorded in Cyprus and the Netherlands; the Netherlands also had the highest known value between 2016 and 2019, the latest period for which data is available.
The audit covered the period from 2014 to 2020 (whose standards were extended to cover 2021 and 2022), with a look forward to the period from 2023 to 2027. The auditors assessed whether the European Commission and member states had made effective use of the EU tools for managing agricultural soils and manure sustainably. The audit sample included five EU countries: Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, and the Netherlands.