Soil erosion: why EU policies matter

BY COLINE HACOT. Soil erosion may sound like a technical, distant topic that scares off the average non-scientist, even an environmentally sensitive one (myself included). Because the science behind it is intimidating, or because soils aren’t cool, it’s easy to overlook erosion. That’s a pity, because healthy soils are important to all of us, and it matters to look at what EU politicians are doing to protect them.

Written by Coline Hacot, MSc student in Sustainable Territorial Development, a joint Erasmus Mundus degree between KU Leuven, the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne and the University of Padova.

Coline Hacot

Soil erosion affects all life on earth and impacts biodiversity and the environment in general. Soils are logically crucial for food production (and the economy around it). But they do a lot of other things: they stock carbon dioxide, host a rich biodiversity, and absorb, stock, and filter water. In doing so, soils limit global warming, ensure that we can drink clean water, and prevent our houses from being flooded by heavy rains.

Enviornmental and social risks

Erosion means that particles of soil become detached. It is caused, among others, by human activities like tillage, using heavy machinery, or leaving large surfaces of soil bare for long periods of time. Eroded soil is damaged and cannot fulfill its functions properly. Erosion reduces agricultural output, threatens biodiversity, and makes carbon dioxide flow free. Some consequences of soil erosion are already visible today in Europe, particularly in Italy and Slovenia. Water flows over eroded soil instead of being absorbed (“runoff”), taking loose particles (“sediments”) and potential pollutants along. These end up in rivers, decreasing water quality, and turning heavy rains into muddy floods. The latter has become a real issue in Belgium, for example around the Dyle river that flows through Leuven.

Erosion costs Europe billions of euros each year, with 12 million hectares of land affected.

This brings serious environmental and social risks, but also economic costs. Estimates of the total cost of erosion vary, but generally add up to tens of millions of euros annually for Belgium, and billions for the European Union (EU), with 12 million hectares of land affected. There’s also private money involved: farmers suffer crop output and productivity losses, and floods damage private properties and can hurt local businesses, for example in the tourism industry. As a result, erosion significantly impacts our everyday lives, now and in the future. Combined with additional factors like population growth, urbanization, and climate change with its increased probability of extreme weather, the importance of good soils will only increase.

So how can EU policies make a difference?

Policies for soil erosion are useful for the same reasons as other environmental policies. The lag between short-term costs and long-term benefits discourages spontaneous initiatives by farmers or single countries. Moreover, people who damage soils aren’t necessarily the ones who suffer from this damage, awareness levels vary, and everyone tends to wait for others to make the necessary effort (the so-called free-rider problem). By setting universal requirements or providing funding schemes, legislation creates constraints or incentives to pursue societal benefits. This ensures that minorities don’t have to lose their competitive edge from taking individual action.

EU policies can prevent imbalances in inter-state competitiveness, and widen societal and economic benefits. Because the EU has access to larger budgets, it can also provide significant funding for projects and research that benefit all member states. However, the EU’s subsidiarity principle means that action should be taken at the lowest relevant level. Soil erosion is a very heterogeneous threat, with mostly local consequences and stakes, which puts into question whether the EU is competent for this issue. Policies to tackle erosion have to accommodate these different perspectives.

Contradictory policies

The EU’s main channel for action is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farmers receive funding on the condition that they meet requirements regarding for example animal welfare, pesticides, and habitat preservation. Since 2014, the requirements include so-called ‘greening’ measures that help protect soils. The CAP also funds rural development programmes in member states, which can also cover soil protection.

A real integrated approach to protect our soils is lacking.

Additionally, the European Soil Thematic Strategy was adopted in 2006, admirably, after stakeholder consultation. The strategy takes a more holistic approach. It sets principles, objectives and possible measures and states that member states should identify risk areas and set up national programmes to deal with their respective soil issues. However, the Directive proposal associated with the strategy was withdrawn in 2014, which means it has no actual legal power.

Several other environmental policies feature soils indirectly. Then there are also other, contradictory policies. For example, glyphosate was initially banned, while the CAP greening measures encourage its use, because it imposes the use of specific cover crops to temporarily protect soils that need the product to be removed.

Companies like Bayer also weigh heavily on the complex European power balance. The Guardian revealed in 2018 that most MEPs involved in agricultural policies were affiliated with industry actors.

It is up to the new European Commission to develop clear and concrete policies that guarantee healthy soils.

According to environmental agencies like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a real integrated approach is lacking, and the Soil Thematic Strategy was neither very binding, nor a powerful legislative tool. They call for a more constraining framework that addresses soils directly and takes into account their complexity. Erosion is not the sole threat to soils, which fulfill many different functions that require careful coordination of measures. Other organisations, including farmers unions at EU and national levels (like the UK’s National Farmers Union) rejected the Directive, saying it was a layer of red tape, and that farmers are better placed to act locally.

Although efforts are made, short-term economic benefits seem to be valued more than long-term well-being. It is up to the newly elected European Parliament and the resulting new European Commission to change this mindset and develop clear and concrete policies that guarantee healthy soils.