Soil is a vital, limited, non-renewable, irreplaceable resource directly associated with and absolutely necessary for preserving healthy environments and biodiversity, reversing climate change, ensuring resilient, high quality and affordable food supply chains. On 5 July, the European Commission published its proposal for making soils healthier, the EU Soil Monitoring and Resilience Law.
The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) is currently delivering an Opinion on this proposal, focusing on the actions taken at the local and regional level, which are closest to citizens and nature. Here we interview the rapporteur for this Opinion, Frida Nilsson, CoR member (RENEW) for Lidköping Municipality, Sweden.
1. Why is soil health important?
I think we can all agree that soil health is essential for the wellbeing of citizens and the environment. I speak out of conviction but also out of experience. I am a full-time farmer, and only a part-time politician, after all.
I know first-hand that without clean and healthy soils there are serious repercussions on our daily lives, both immediately and in the medium and long term. These effects impact our health, the state of our surrounding nature and animals and correspondingly our economy. So we need to understand sustainability, including for soils, as a cornerstone principle for our society, our economy and how we treat our surrounding environments.
2. Why do we need to act on soil now?
At present we are at a critical point for soil health. This is common sense but also there is scientific data to back this assertion. The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that the majority of EU soils are considered unhealthy, with potentially 2.8 million sites being contaminated.
Indicatively, beyond the serious ecological impacts, soil degradation in the EU comes with an economic cost of more than EUR 50 billion per year according to the EEA, which is a very high price to pay, considering that this is an avoidable cost.
For me, even worse is that scientific evidence indicates that soil degradation in the EU is continuing and worsening. So we need to act to reverse this downward trend.
3. What is your key angle for this dossier, which is technical but also very much directly relevant to our everyday lives?
I can agree with you that the proposal has both a technical dimension and, primarily perhaps, resonates with our common desire for healthy environments. My interest is to highlight the importance of soil health as an essential basis for the European economy, society and environment.
In doing so, I want to remove any doubt among policy makers about the size of the problem of soil degradation within the EU, because it is very sizeable, and I want to push forward the realisation, awareness and consciousness of the need for swift and effective solutions that acknowledge the key role of local and regional authorities.
4. Could some narrowly defined objectives be an obstacle for an effective implementation?
As I said at the start of the interview, I am a farmer and I have first-hand experience and knowledge of the potential cost implications of otherwise well-intended policy interventions. Hence, I want to make sure that the proposed framework for monitoring and assessment is flexible enough to take into account the widely differing situations at the local, regional and national level in terms of ecosystems, soils, climatic conditions and administrative structures across the EU.
If we don't do this, we increase transaction costs, which result in bad legislation, greater costs and popular resentment. To counter this we need sufficient flexibility in terms of methodologies for measurements and sampling, as well as reporting intervals, which should reflect factors such as current land-use and population density and follow a risk-based approach overall.
5. We have had one more difficult summer in Europe, with major wildfires followed by catastrophic floods. What is the relevance of such events to soil?
We are indeed at a point in time where the regularity of such major events renders them not the exception but unfortunately the 'new normal'. For soil, a lot has been said about soil erosion due to sustained periods of drought. Now, however, flash floods triggered and intensified by abrupt increases in global temperature are equally affecting soil quality, impacting human and animal lives and livelihoods.
So we need to act decisively on many fronts, avoiding duplications. This will mean strengthening synergies between EU climate and environmental regulations and reducing regulatory overlap. This should cover the provisions of the Nature Restoration Law, Land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) and the Water Framework Directive. And because we need to do a full circle, this could also extend into provisions in the Critical Raw Materials Act, Net Zero Industry Act and the Industrial Emissions Directive, as well as consider the interaction with the REpowerEU plan's objectives and actions.
6. One final question, Europe is a diverse continent in terms of geography and climatic conditions, and this results in diversity also in terms of soil composition. How should this be reflected in the Soil Law?
This is absolutely correct, and it is something that is evident to us members of the Committee of the Regions as we are regularly exposed to the different, but equally important, regional and local realities of our peers during our meetings. I would also like to add the reality of ultraperipheral regions in this context.
In answering this question I would say that descriptors and criteria should be relevant to all European ecosystems, such as agricultural land, forests and alpine tundra, and take into account natural variation in soil composition and natural background concentrations. To do so, a systematic and methodologically sound data collection effort is needed, where regional and local authorities can and should play an important role – provided that the resources to do so are available.
Let me also add that I want to ensure that the proposed mitigation principles, although an important tool in terms of soil health, do not come into conflict with local and regional responsibilities and mandates in regard to land-use planning and development.
For more information on the Proposal for a Directive on Soil Monitoring and Resilience read here.
- Publication date
- 13 October 2023
- Directorate-General for Environment