EU Policy. Soil protection law survives plenary vote, but considerably weakened

Drone's eye view of a ploughed field in Belgium.
Drone's eye view of a ploughed field in Belgium. Copyright European Union, 2020
Copyright European Union, 2020
By Robert Hodgson
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Legislation designed to bolster the key role of soil in maintaining Europe's biodiversity and climate resilience has been approved by MEPs, but only after the requirements it would place on national governments were significantly lightened.


A draft law designed to help restore Europe’s degraded soils to health has survived a vote in the European Parliament, but only after it was stripped of legally binding targets and monitoring requirements were significantly watered down or removed entirely.

The fate of the Soil Monitoring Law was by no means assured, with several key pieces of European Green Deal legislation having already been either shelved or delayed indefinitely in the run up to EU elections and amid angry protests by farmers.

But in a plenary vote on Wednesday (10 April) evening, a proposal by the conservative and nationalist ECR and ID groups was rejected by a margin of two to one, despite support from just over half of the centre-right EPP group, which has set itself up as the farmers’ champion ahead of EU elections in June.

Green groups were nevertheless disappointed. The European Environmental Bureau said the law as amended by the parliament would leave on “shaky ground” the future of the estimated 60-70% of Europe’s soil cover that is seriously degraded in terms nutrient content and biodiversity.

Caroline Heinzel, a policy officer with the Brussels-based NGO umbrella group, said it had been “painful to watch” lawmakers picking away at a compromise text agreed in the parliament's environment committee, noting that MEPs would have an “incredibly weak” negotiating mandate when they enter talks with EU governments to hammer out a final version.

“This decision is incomprehensible,” Heinzel said, suggesting it was now up to the EU Council to push for a law that could ensure soils are restored to health. “This not only delays necessary action but also jeopardises ecosystem integrity, food security and farmers’ livelihoods," she said.

Another group, the Environmental Coalition on Standards, also regretted that MEPs had opted for a largely voluntary approach to enforcement and narrowed the scope of the law by removing raw material deposits from the definition of soil types covered by the proposal.

The animal rights charity Four Paws saw a contradictory approach to the impact of industrial farming on soil quality, with policy officer Miguel Ángel Zhan Dai describing the inclusion of nitrogen levels as an indicator for soil health as a “a step forward in quantifying the true extent of industrial animal farming's contribution to soil degradation”.

“However, without enforceable targets, obligations and even indicative sustainable soil management principles, we risk undermining the directive's intent,” Dai said, also criticising the lack of harmonisation, with EU countries free to choose which indicators to apply.

In a final vote, the European Parliament backed the proposal as amended by 336 votes to 242, with 33 abstentions. In the end, some 20 EPP group members voted for the law in its watered-down form, while a handful of Greens joined the bulk of the right-wing of the assembly in voting against it.

Governments have yet to agree a joint position on the proposed soil law, after a discussion in an EU Council working group meeting this week ended in deadlock. The Belgian presidency of the EU Council still hopes to find common ground before its mandate ends in June, but final talks between the EU’s two legislative bodies are unlikely to begin before a newly elected parliament convenes in July.

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