EU Policy. MEPs back law aimed at restoring European soil to health

Widespread intensive agriculture is just one of the reasons that some two-thirds of Europe's soil is in ecologically poor condition.
Widespread intensive agriculture is just one of the reasons that some two-thirds of Europe's soil is in ecologically poor condition. Copyright Julian Stratenschulte/AP
Copyright Julian Stratenschulte/AP
By Robert Hodgson
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Governments should be required to monitor in detail the ecological status of soil, MEPs have agreed, while stopping short of demanding binding restoration targets or imposing limits on urbanisation.


The European Parliament’s environment committee has backed a proposal for mandatory monitoring and remedial measures with a view to restoring an estimated two-thirds of soils that are in poor health, jeopardising biodiversity and future food production.

By 42 votes to 26, with 14 abstentions, MEPs on Monday (11 March) adopted their draft position on a Soil Monitoring Law proposed by the European Commission last July, intended to further the aim of restoring to health by 2050 swathes of land that have been degraded by pollution, unsustainable intensive farming or urban sprawl.

Environmental campaigners were relieved that a compromise deal between political groups in the parliament saw the committee agree on the need for mandatory monitoring of soil health, even building on the EU executive’s original proposal by calling for the monitoring of a wide range of biodiversity indicators covering bacteria, fungus and worm populations and overall variety and biomass.

Moreover, the environment committee agreed on the need for national governments to draw up plans for soil restoration. Although MEPs stopped short of agreeing that these should be mandatory, the European Commission had omitted any call for national plans from its proposal.

Caroline Heinzel, a soil specialist at the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels saw the committee vote as an “important step” towards restoring land to a more natural and sustainable state, and expressed relief at a successful compromise amid a “current political climate” of populist pushback against environmental policy.

Most members of the centre-right European Peoples’ Party – which has put slashing red tape for farmers at the centre of the EU election campaign – abstained, although several sided with the eurosceptic ECR and nationalist ID groups in opposing the legislation, and four voted in favour.

“That said, the compromises lack legally binding targets, mandatory soil health plans, and only include weak, non-binding provisions on sustainable soil management and land take,” Heinzel said, adding: “This is deeply regrettable.”

Regarding land take, typically the repurposing of green field sites for industrial or residential development, the commission’s proposal that governments should ensure that it is reduced as much as technically and economically feasible is replaced in the committee draft report by the provision that that member states should merely “consider” the issue in their planning.

Martin Hojsik (Slovakia/Renew), who is charged with steering the proposal through the parliament, put a positive spin on the compromise, which represented a considerable watering down of his draft report. “We are finally close to achieving a common European framework to protect our soils from degradation,” Hojsik said. “Farmers’ livelihoods and food on our table depend on this non-renewable resource.”

The parliament as a whole will finalise its negotiating position on the file in a plenary vote slated for 11 April. The Belgian EU Council presidency has stated it intends to forge an inter-governmental agreement before its term ends in June.

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