Caring for the planet starts from the ground

If caring for the planet starts from the ground, as the FAO states today (World Soils Day, 2017), then caring for the planet starts with farmers, foresters and all others who manage and use the EU’s soils. It follows that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), as a major driver of the decisions made by Europe’s 12 million farmers, is critical to securing responsible, long term management of our soils and related ecosystem services.

Soil quality, its preservation and management are important for land’s productive capacity. An EU-27 baseline study of biomass production for food, feed, fibre and fuel in Europe concluded that on arable land, local soil quality determines the variability of biomass production potential to a greater extent than climate. Thus, in most regions, well-managed arable land that preserves soil quality can help compensate for climatic handicaps[1]. This is not just true for the production of biomass but also applies to the capacity of arable land to deliver other services such as to sequester and store carbon, to filter and store water and as a buffer for chemicals.

The ability of soil to deliver ecosystem services is under increasing pressure. Observed rates of soil sealing, erosion, contamination and decline in organic matter all reduce soil functionality[2]. Increasingly analysis is looking at how the EU can manage its soil resource better in the short, medium and long term. This includes understanding what land managers can do to improve soil protection and their resource efficiency and how current and future CAP instruments can help support this. It also involves understanding better the drivers of soil management and resource management decisions and the wider policy infrastructure required to understand, monitor, improve and protect Europe’s soils.

Analysis by IEEP for the European Commission identified that the lack of a strategic policy framework both at EU level, and in many Member States, means that the soil challenges, priorities and solutions are often not set out clearly. This hinders the effective integration of soil considerations into sectoral and environmental policies. It also significantly impinges on the EU’s ability to form a clear implementation strategy for international priorities including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate mitigation targets. Clarity and direction in structuring regional and local action, for example under the CAP, is also compromised.

Understanding the quality and functionality of soil across Europe is important for effective policy implementation and determining the ‘results’ achieved through the use of EU funding and policy requirements. The European Environment Agency in its 2015 State of the Environment report highlighted the lack of good-quality and harmonised soil data at pan-European scale and the relatively undeveloped state of research on linking soil data with soil functions. This in turn makes it difficult to assess the prospects for soil functionality and soil-based ecosystem services.

These policy and knowledge gaps are important in the context of ensuring that Europe delivers environmental protection alongside biomass for food, feed, fibre and fuel . Recognising the important role of soil and how it is managed will be important in the wider debate on the future use of land to deliver society’s multiple priorities and needs.

The CAP does provide the means to influence the positive management of the EU’s soils. For example, it provides some protection to soils through cross-compliance requirements and support for active soil management via Pillar 1 greening measures and Rural Development Programmes – see IEEP’s recent briefing on CAP tools for soil protection. However, in the absence of coordinating principles around soil needs, prioritisation of soil actions varies considerably across Member States. Analysis for the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) found that funding dedicated to soil and resource efficiency priorities within Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) varied substantially. For example, 80 per cent of RDPs analysed (88 out of 112) set targets for fostering carbon conservation and sequestration on agriculture and forestry land. However, the proportion of land under management contracts contributing to carbon sequestration and conservation varied from 15 per cent in Estonia to 0.02 per cent in Slovakia.

The ENRD’s Thematic Group on Resource Efficiency also identified knowledge and communication barriers to adoption of actions on the ground by land managers, even if the opportunities to do so were available. This then compounds the gaps in policy and knowledge identified in the wider context of soil protection. Issues identified as impacting on farmers’ willingness to adopt new approaches include: the degree of fit with existing farm practices; impact on farm income; and fear of penalties if new practices are not correctly implemented. Motivating farmers to change their management even if they cannot see a clear economic advantage in the short term, or do not understand fully the impact this could have on their farm business in the longer term (positive and negative), is a challenge that must be addressed urgently.

For soils there is no static state or fixed end point, their quality and health requires ongoing, long term, coordinated management to protect, improve and retain remaining assets and improve those soils that have been degraded. The goal must be to maximise opportunities and the resilience (economic and environmental) of land for farmers and society now and into the future.

Work is continuing through the ENRD Thematic Group on Resource Efficiency on the role of RDPs in soil protection and on the opportunities under the CAP within the iSQAPER research project.

For more information on IEEP’s work on soils, contact Catherine Bowyer (

[1]: Tóth, G., Gardi, C., Bódis, K., Ivits, E., Aksoy, E, Jones, A., Jeffrey, S., Petursdottir, T. and Montanarella, L. (2013), 'Continental-scale assessment of provisioning soil functions in Europe', Ecological Processes, (2013, 2) 32.

[2]: EEA – State of the Environment Report – 2015 -


05 Dec 2017


Catherine Bowyer