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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Patrick Greenfield

EU sets out first-ever soil law to protect food security and slow global heating

Wild flowers growing from exposed soil and roots
More than 60% of the EU’s soils are considered to be in an unhealthy state. Photograph: Guido Paradisi/Alamy

The European Commission has proposed the continent’s first soil law, intended to undo some of the damage done by intensive farming and mitigate global heating.

Amid intense opposition to proposed laws on nature restoration and curbs on pesticides, the European Commission put forward proposals in Brussels on Wednesday to revive degraded soils. Research indicates that this could help absorb carbon from the atmosphere and ensure sustainable food production.

The new law would see member states monitor the health of soils, fertiliser use and erosion, but stops short of country-level targets for improving soil quality. This drew criticism from the European agri-food industry, which called for more ambition to improve the “worrying” state of soils.

Speaking to the Guardian, the EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said the ultimate aim was for the continent to have healthy soils by 2050. More than 60% of the EU’s soils are considered to be in an unhealthy state.

“If our soils continue to degrade, the biggest risk is to our food security and farmers. Basically, their business model is wiped out,” he said. “I can hardly imagine how we could do agriculture without fertile soils. The worst effects of droughts and flood can be avoided with healthier soils.”

The EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday.
The EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

The new law would not have legally binding targets, however. “We are opening the way to additional income opportunities for farmers and landowners through a voluntary certification scheme for soil health and strong synergies with carbon farming and payments for ecosystem services,” Sinkevičius said.

Land use is the second major source of greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels, and a major cause of biodiversity loss, with overuse of fertilisers and peatland degradation a driver of both crises. Research released earlier this week indicated that modest improvements to agricultural soils around the world might store enough carbon to keep the world within 1.5C of global heating.

One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B), the main representative of the European agri-food industry in Brussels, said the proposals did not go far enough. “The EU needs to go further to tackle the trend of deteriorating soil health in Europe,” said OP2B’s director Stefania Avanzini in a statement.

The organisation is calling on EU member states and the European parliament to raise the ambition of the proposal. “We very much value the importance the commission gives to agriculture and its central role in the management of soil,” Avanzini said.

“Still, we would have appreciated the commission grasping the magnitude of the efforts needed to move to sustainable management practices and mobilising the necessary funds to support the transition to regenerative agriculture at scale.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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