World Soil Day: Stop taking advantage of the soil’s generosity

05 December 2021, Martin Doeswijk and Julie Estival

On this year’s World Soil Day, Martin Doeswijk (International Soil Director) and Julie Estival (Project Manager Agro Environment) share their opinion and vision on the new EU Soil Strategy, the importance of healthy soil and sustainable management of soil resources. But above all they call on all EU countries to embrace the new EU Soil Strategy.

On November 17th 2021, the new strategy was adopted by the European Commission and it stated that the goal is to ensure that all soil ecosystems in the EU are healthy and resilient by 2050[1]. However, the same report also stated that today, around 60 to 70% of soils in the EU are not healthy. In this article, Julie and Martin urge the need for soil improvement and discuss what the necessary next steps are, why TAUW thinks it is so important to act now and how we already contribute to the goal.

Recently the new EU Soil Strategy was adopted by the European Commission. What does the new Soil Strategy mean in concrete terms?

The EU Soil Strategy is a vision which aims for healthy soils throughout Europe in 2050. Different types of soil have been considered: soils in agricultural, natural and urban areas, all including groundwater. It's not only about restoration and sustainable land use, but also about social commitment, governance, knowledge exchange and best practices. That is to say, the soil is given a voice in important societal issues, such as climate adaptation, energy transition, food production, urbanisation and circularity. 

In addition, the new Soil Strategy is an important part of the Green Deal and signifies that, at last, a full reflection process at the European Commission level will be dedicated to soil. There has been a shift in how a healthy soil is described: it is no longer just considered a fertile soil, free from pollution. A healthy soil is also understood as soil which provides a wide range of ecosystem services, such as: 

  • providing food and biomass production, including in agriculture and forestry; 
  • absorbing, storing and filtering water and transforming nutrients and substances, thus protecting groundwater bodies; 
  • providing the basis for life and biodiversity, including habitats, species and genes; 
  • acting as a carbon reservoir; 
  • providing a physical platform and cultural services for humans and their activities; 
  • acting as a source of raw materials; 
  • constituting an archive of geological, geomorphological and archaeological heritage. 

The new EU Soil Strategy also means new tools for member states to implement it, including regulatory tools: a legal arsenal on soil health will be proposed by 2023. And finally, the new Soil Strategy aims to define agreed upon ranges or thresholds beyond which soils cannot be considered healthy anymore, which is new for some countries. 

Why is it such a milestone that the European Commission has adopted the EU Soil Strategy for 2030?

The new Soil Strategy is a milestone because up until recently, soil had been lacking dedicated legislation, and a common level of protection which already exists for water or air. Water and air are seen as common goods because they flow and anyone can draw water from the same resource or breathe the same air, which is not the case for soil. However, ecosystem services provided by the soils don’t stop at cadastral boundaries or even national boundaries; everyone benefits from a healthy soil able to regulate water and prevent floods! With this paradigm shift (soil as a common good) comes a higher level of protection and a legal framework: legally binding measures. 

Why is it so important that the new Soil Strategy is embraced and implemented (both on an international and local level)?

Good soil health is a condition for many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) set by the United Nations; at least seven are specifically targeted: 

  • SDG 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • SDG 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable 
  • SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • SDG 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

"Considering the importance of soils for a wide range of vital functions for life, it is an obligation for us to future generations to embrace the challenge of protecting and restoring soil’s health." - Julie Estival


What is the urge and need for the improvement of soil?

Soil is such a thin layer, and it takes so much time to create (did you know that generating three centimeters of topsoil takes 1,000 years?). Various reports have identified an alarming situation regarding soils health in the EU: two third of European soils have already been affected by human activities that contribute to severe degradation processes such as erosion, compaction, organic matter decline, pollution, loss of biodiversity, salinization and sealing. 

A recent example highlighting the prevalence of soil pollution comes from a recent study TAUW together with consortium partners[2] worked on the ‘HCH in EU’ project. One aspect of the project was to map out the legacy of Lindane (a persistent organic pollutant, widely used in the world and banned since the seventies) and technical HCH production in all 27 EU countries. This resulted in a list of 299 sites where HCH and Lindane were handled and provided insight into the many uses of these substances; more than initially thought. Another project task involved designing a strategy for the EU-wide management of HCH-contaminated sites. This strategy highlights the next steps that must be taken at EU, country/region and site levels to ultimately reduce the environmental impact of HCH and Lindane-contaminated sites in the EU.

What happens if we do not respond?

Considering the importance of soils for a wide range of vital functions for life, it is an obligation for us to future generations to embrace the challenge of protecting and restoring soil’s health. Obvious negative consequences of not doing so would be, for example, compromising food safety, eliminating microorganisms that have proven to be a source of medicine for human health, or lacking the resilience to cope with climate change.

The ground connects us; it is literally the foundation of our existence. We build on it, develop infrastructure, dredge and create nature reserves. Extracting or recycling raw materials, combatting subsidence or reinforcing dykes often entails getting our hands dirty, perhaps in a figurative sense too. Aside from that, the soil is a reservoir of nutrients, that allows our food to grow, as well as plants and trees, which sequester CO2. Indeed, you might say that we are taking advantage of the soil’s generosity on a daily basis. If we do not act, the earth will be exhausted. It’s concerning that so many of our soils are thinning. Some, very quickly if the current rates of degradation continues. So it's inevitable that we must act and not only take advantage of its generosity, but give the soil also something back in return. 

"It's unthinkable that such an important topic is not fully supported by our EU governments. In other words, this is a major opportunity for a real boost as a stepping stone for a healthy soil for future generations!" - Martin Doeswijk


What are the next steps that need to be taken? (e.g. to stop deforestation, innovate sustainable waste management and make soils healthy for people, nature and climate?)

The next necessary steps, involve gaining support of the EU Soil strategy from all EU members. This is the backbone for implementation of legally binding measures. In addition to this, we are advocating for educational actions to broaden our vision as European citizens of what constitutes a healthy soil. 

The first proposal for an EU Soil Directive was withdrawn in 2014 after years of negotiations, due to the blocking minority of some EU members. This new EU Soil Strategy is a second chance to give soil the necessary legislative protection which is currently lacking. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that this time all Member States express their support on the next Environmental Council on the 21st of December 2021.

It's unthinkable that such an important topic is not fully supported by our EU governments. In other words, this is a major opportunity for a real boost as a stepping stone for a healthy soil for future generations!

Another priority is to revise land management and land use planning to stop land take. It is also urgent to prevent erosion: in Europe, every year, about 1 billion tons of soil are washed away by erosion! 

What is TAUW's ambition regarding soil? What does TAUW strive for?

We strive for a world where environmental measures are not seen as constraints, but opportunities to regenerate our planet and live harmoniously with other living creatures. We advocate for a holistic approach taking into account the balance between all the ecosystem services the soil can provide and the measures to make the soil healthy again.

Our comprehensive expertise in the field of soil and groundwater issues can help play a role in societal challenges like climate change, biodiversity, combatting (diffuse) pollution and creating future-proof habitats. Furthermore, thanks to our knowledge of European soil legislation, we have a clear vision when it comes to maintaining and improving the vitality of soil. We are able to actively contribute to shaping policy and offering practical solutions internationally. 

How does TAUW (already) contribute to this? How does it reflect in our projects (inter)nationally?

TAUW has already been working towards the vision set forth in the Soil Strategy; that EU soil ecosystems are healthy and functioning and polluted sites are remediated (soil, subsoil, groundwater). This is our core business.

In our environmental impact assessments, we already research how above ground biodiversity, certain soil ecosystem services or building with nature principles could be affected by a project, often implying land take. But we must go further into considering soil as a whole ecosystem. This is why we have innovative programs on less intrusive techniques, and more sustainable remediation methods (phytoremediation, enhanced natural attenuation, etc.), that are able to mitigate pollution while preserving the other components of the soil. And we are developing competence to understand other dimensions of the soils, not only its chemical properties but also its structure, biodiversity, nutrients dynamic, water flows, sociocultural interest, etc. for every project of land redevelopment.   

To conclude, it’s not only our responsibility as a human being, but also our passion to give the soil something back in return.




[2] Consortium consisting of Netherlands-based TAUW (Lead consultant), Germany-based CDM Smith Europe GmbH and Spain-based Sociedad Aragonesa de Gestión Agroambiental (SARGA).

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