The necessity of healthy soils

World Soil Day 2023 | Soil and Water: a source of life

World Soil Day is celebrated annually on 5 December to raise awareness of the importance of soil and advocate for its sustainable management. A message also propagated by the authors of the Green Paper 'The urgent necessity of healthy soils': Martin Doeswijk and Margot de Cleen. Martin is director Soil and Groundwater at TAUW and Margot is policy advisor Soil and Water at Rijkswaterstaat. They talk passionately about how everyone can contribute to a healthier soil, from individuals to government.


Why are healthy soils important?

Soil. It doesn't capture everyone's imagination, especially if you don't see it. Many of us take the soil for granted, as something to stand on, to move on, to build on. But soil is so much more. "Soil affects everything from growing crops, nature and biodiversity to the quality of drinking water and drainage. It affects our lives and well-being. If you fail to pay attention to it, things just don't work out," Martin says.

World Soil Day 2023

This year's theme is "Soil and water: a source of life". It highlights the crucial role that soil and water play in sustaining life on Earth. They are the foundation for a functioning ecosystem and the well-being of flora, fauna and people. World Soil Day highlights the need to protect and conserve these valuable resources.

Inaction leads to doomsday scenario

A European Commission study shows that 60-70% of soils in Europe are now degraded. But the problem is not limited to our continent: soils worldwide are in poor condition. Soils in those areas are partially degraded, salinated or eroded, their soil fertility has disappeared, the soil is covered or contaminated. Margot: "That is when you see that the soil is less resilient. It can no longer cope with enormous droughts, for instance, because the organic matter is no longer there. Biodiversity can decline and lack of protection or filtering by the soil can lead to groundwater shortages or contamination." And that, of course, has consequences. In Africa, for instance, people are becoming adrift who no longer have access to fertile land due to desertification. Closer to home, we see rapid erosion in the Alps caused by the construction of ski resorts, and flooding in Germany and Limburg (the Netherlands) as the soil is no longer able to hold water. Quite a doomsday scenario to watch.

Give soil a voice

Although soil carries many functions relevant to society as a whole, it has long been an overlooked asset. While policies were developed to tackle soil pollution, the role soil plays in a bigger picture remained unexplored. This sparked a fire in Margot to focus specifically on soil. "From then on, I started looking at the soil system with different communities around me, scientists but also others. What do we need to know about it? What is the added value and social value of this system?" At some point, Margot joined the Bewust Bodemgebruik initiative, an open and informal network for sustainable soil and land use, which raises social awareness of soil. "We wondered how to give the soils, which are so important, a voice. Should soil be given rights or should policy give direction? Do we use art forms, redesign education or just set an example ourselves by designing our own acreage from what the soil can do? What you want to move towards is a kind of relationship with the soil: you invest the soil and the soil invests in you. By taking good care of the soil, the soil can endlessly deliver to you and you empower each other."

Green Paper for healthier soils

As members of the organising committee of the 2021 International AquaConSoil conference, Martin and Margot got together to talk about their passion for healthy soils and their importance. Martin: "We wanted to summarise the good ideas that emerged during the conference and make them available to others who could not attend. We wanted to secure the continuity of ideas and subsequent actions." With the development of the European Soil Strategy and the European Directive on Soil Monitoring and Resilience, the original idea grew, resulting in the release of the first universal English Green Paper in early 2023. A new edition of AquaConSoil followed, and meanwhile in the Netherlands a policy letter (Water- en Bodemsturend) has been published proposing that the soil water system becomes a directive in spatial development. Margot: "Provinces and municipalities are still looking for answers to questions such as: What does this mean for us? What exactly is a healthy soil? And then it turns out that a lot of parties still feel this is a remote concern.."

Long-term vision, holistic approach and mindset

All soil professionals, including policymakers, scientists, contractors and consultants are committed to their work. However, often the work is done on a project-to-project basis, quite opportunistically. Martin states: "What we would like to see is a long-term vision emerging in all sorts of areas. It often takes 10 to 20 years to design a motorway or a residential area. Soil-related matters often need to be dealt with tomorrow, which is not a good way of moving from the current status quo to healthier soils. That also takes 10 to 20 years. This means that you need politicians, but also investors to show a long term (financial) commitment to environmental development". In addition to the problem of short-term vision, tunnel vision often plays a role. Margot: "Usually a solution is sought for a specific location, whereas you should be looking at areas and not just locally. In a wider area, you can often come up with several solutions. For example, within an area you can combine food production with energy production and biodiversity goals. What can the system do in the area as a whole? What are the best places to develop certain activities, and what is the best way to do it? The Netherlands has a limited surface area. As a delta country, the Netherlands are also particularly vulnerable to flooding. The Netherlands are densely populated, with a virtually seamless transition between urban, rural, agricultural and industrial areas. There are no fallback options, which makes all spatial development quite complex. "In order to successfully manage all the transitions we are facing, it is important to look at the environment and think in a different way: can you add value to several tasks in one area by doing them smarter or differently? You cannot do that by doing everything sector by sector, you really have to work holistically," says Margot. .

Everyone has a responsibility

Making soils healthier requires awareness, a long-term vision, an integrated approach and a different way of thinking. It is also important that everyone takes responsibility, from governments and organisations to individuals. Martin: "Everyone can contribute. It is not the case that we, as citizens of the Netherlands, can say: 'The government should take care of this. It will all work out. Policymakers have to do that.” The responsibility also lies with us, with consultancies, contractors and citizens themselves. You can do your bit by, for example, removing tiles from your garden, starting a community initiative to make your neighbourhood greener, or switching to regenerative farming. You can also make a difference in the context of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and procurement. "For example, by looking at circular products, going circular in construction or through initiatives like land stewardship, where you look at how your business or industrial site can also provide other services. This is also an area where you can ensure a green environment by enhancing the natural system through carbon sequestration, contributing to climate mitigation, biodiversity, and the water retention.” Margot explains. “It is important to know that small things do make a difference. On the other hand we have to look at the bigger picture. Everyone has a right to a healthy environment and a future. Not just us now, but also our youth and future generations. We have a responsibility to future generations. We cannot say 'well, the future generation will have to solve it on its own”. Whereas in the past, the focus was on techniques to make contaminated land usable again, now the emphasis is on changing behaviour, changing us as a society. "And that is the challenge I think we all have to face," says Margot.

10 point action plan

The Green Paper contains a valuable and practical 10 point action plan that the government, companies and citizens can work with immediately. The key challenges are: change of mindset and building awareness, long-term vision, integrated approach and education. Martin: "It all starts with awareness. Very often the problems are tackled in a very technical way. It is very difficult to get an understanding of what is going on below the surface of the soil. The wildlife film "Planet Soil" shows what soil life, especially in a healthy soil, looks like and how wonderful it is. All these tiny soil creatures and fungi, how they communicate with each other, have been made visible on the cinema screen. This helps enormously to raise awareness, to inspire and to increase intrinsic motivation. Artists can also help to show the importance of soil, as you can see in the Green Paper. "In addition, education can do a lot to raise awareness, for example by having a green schoolyard and children playing with soil. That's where it starts. Most people live in the city, where you don't see soil at all. It's really about visualising the soil, the ecosystem, to raise awareness. This can be done in many different ways, but you have to initiate it," Margot adds.

World Soil Day

To continue to raise global awareness of soil, its functions and all its uses essential for well-being and prosperity, we celebrate World Soil Day on 5 December. A the moment we are witnessing a growing attention to soil health. The Netherlands have developed a progressive soil policy to address soil contamination and link soil services to spatial development, which sets the standard for European policy, but we are not there yet. There are many differences between countries and continents, so there is still much to be done. The theme of this year's World Soil Day is ‘Soil and Water: a source of life’. "Together they form a system, they are interconnected and they communicate with each other. It's important to recognise this and to design projects accordingly. I strive to do so every day in my professional and private life. In this respect, every day is World Soil Day for me," says Martin. Margot: "It's about continuously showing what soil is and talking about it in all kinds of ways. That’s how we can forge a connection and how people are intrinsically motivated to work with soil in a positive way: cooking with vegetables from their own garden, creating urban gardens and so on. We need to go back to our roots, to feel connected to the earth system. We are a bit disconnected from our natural system at times.”

The future of soils

In their Green Paper, Martin and Margot state that everyone has a right to healthy soils. Martin: "This is what we want for everyone. But real work needs to be done and the time for making plans is over. We just have to get going and this Green Paper provides direction and practical tools. It is important that we are open to new developments and knowledge and that we share them with one another.” Margot adds: "There is already a lot of knowledge available, but it is not always used because people do not know that it exists or where it can be found. That's also what we want to emphasise: that you don't have to start from scratch, but that you do need each other to achieve great things".

Green Paper: The urgent necessity of healthy soils

In this Green Paper, the broader context of the urgent need for healthy soils is highlighted by the interviewees of this paper, Margot de Cleen and Martin Doeswijk. They refer to the EU Soil Strategy and the mission 'A Soil Deal for Europe'. The paper concludes with a clear and achievable 10-point action plan.

Download the Green Paper


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