New report on sustainable soil management!

Life on earth is entirely dependent on healthy functioning soils. They are the very foundation of the ecosystems upon which we rely. We count on their functioning to produce our food, cycle nutrients manage waterflows, sequester carbon and be the foundation of the planet’s biodiversity. Without healthy soils on earth, humankind as we know it could not exist. Yet, despite the fundamental importance of our soils, we have failed to value and protect them.  Soils have been deteriorating over several decades and the outlook to 2030 does not show signs of improvement.

This is not a new insight, nor a new problem.  Policy makers, NGOs, academics, and indeed some groups of farmers have been sounding the alarm bell for decades, yet indicators show that the health of European soils continues to decline year after year, increasing our vulnerability to climate heating, and threatening future food security.

By improving soil health, we can address many of the environmental and climate challenges we face today, and we have the knowledge to do it.  So, if all the signs are pointing in the right direction, why are we not seeing any significant change?

In this report we combined an extensive review of the literature on soil health and management with interviews of over 30 private soil management initiatives across Europe.  A failure of European policy since the 1960s to protect Europe’s soils has led to the spontaneous creation of individual soil initiatives of various types and sizes.  They include initiatives started by groups of farmers, private food companies and NGOs; each designed to overcome specific soil or crop challenges.

The report outlines the obstacles that block the adoption of sustainable agricultural soil management practices at different scales. They include information-, economic-, technical- and structural barriers.  They particularly affect the ability of farmers to change their practices – but there are also missing elements in the willingness of farmers to change.  Top level EU strategies forfarming and soil management are not matched by the same beliefs at national level.   Policy has an important part to play in this, not least by supporting the development of locally specific and crop targeted information that farmers can directly apply, the development of clear and comparable soil metrics and backing soil programmes that are already working and looking promising to upscale.

The report argues that a combination of public money through the CAP, if effectively applied, together with carbon farming payments should be sufficient to cover the costs of the transition to sustainable soil management for farmers.  Yet EU agricultural policy has tried for several decades to encourage sustainable soil management through cross compliance and agri-environment schemes, but these efforts have been crowded out by mis directed CAP payments, and there is no indication that this will change in the next CAP.  

Therefore, the report concludes, that whilst it is imperative to take action to overcome the behavioural, economic, structural, information and technical barriers outlined in the study, it must be recognised that the necessary transition will likely only take off and be sustained:

  • When farmers organisations and Ministries are convinced they are currently on an unsustainable track, and accept the necessity of the directions indicated in EU strategies.
  • When the whole food system is engaged in the process and more fairly shares the full cost and risks of the transition.
  • And when the food prices reflect the full environmental, climatic and social costs of food production.  Governments must recognise and communicate this message and lead the debate on how to make it happen.