Soil is an essential, non-renewable resource for agriculture, providing the basis for the production of food, fibre, and other resources for a circular bio-economy.
Soil also supports biodiversity, plays a central role in carbon sequestration and storage, and provides a number of other ecosystem services, such as water regulation and nutrient cycling.
To protect these vital functions and ecosystem services, the common agricultural policy (CAP) supports sustainable soil and land management.
Soil and agriculture in the EU
With farmland accounting for roughly 50% of the EU’s surface area, agriculture is closely linked with soil health. However, soil in the EU is facing a number of challenges, including erosion, degradation, and desertification, as well as a decline in organic matter and loss of biodiversity.
Many of the issues threatening soil health are related to agriculture and the pressure to meet rising food demands, such as:
- degradation and decline caused by intensive practices;
- compaction under heavy machinery and inappropriate agronomic land cultivation practices;
- damage to biodiversity caused by monocultures and other land use and management practices;
- pollution from chemicals (e.g. pesticides, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, etc.);
- land abandonment and neglect.
In order to address these challenges, the CAP ensures that agriculture is in line with the EU’s soil protection policies, as set out in the current soil thematic strategy. Sustainable soil management is also essential for many strategies and priorities of the European Green Deal, including:
- the farm to fork strategy;
- the zero pollution action plan;
- the ambitions for climate change mitigation and adaptation;
- the biodiversity strategy, which also announced a new EU soil strategy for 2021;
- and the new organic action plan.
Current CAP actions
Through a variety of rules and measures, the CAP aims to safeguard the role of soil within sustainable systems of agriculture in the EU, enabling farmers to
- provide safe, healthy, and sustainably-produced food for society;
- earn a stable and fair income, taking into account the additional public goods they provide;
- protect natural resources, enhance biodiversity, and contribute to the fight against climate change.
Under cross-compliance rules, all beneficiaries of the CAP have their payments linked with a set of statutory management requirements (SMRs) and good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs). Cross-compliance rules of particular relevance to soil include:
- minimum soil cover (GAEC 4);
- minimum land management to limit erosion (GAEC 5);
- maintenance of soil organic matter (GAEC 6).
Green direct payments
Under current CAP rules, farmers must comply with three mandatory practices in order to receive green direct payments. Each of these practices benefit soil health:
- crop diversification: a greater variety of crops makes soil and ecosystems more resilient;
- permanent grassland: maintains fertility and organic carbon in the soil, prevents erosion and benefits biodiversity by protecting habitats;
- ecological focus areas: beneficial options for soil include fallow land, terraces, field margins, agro-forestry, catch crops, green cover and nitrogen-fixing crops.
From 2023, the most effective aspects of green direct payments will be adapted and incorporated within the reformed CAP. Direct payments will continue contributing to environment and climate objectives through the new “eco-schemes” instrument.
Rural development (the so-called “second pillar” of the CAP) includes a specific focus area on soil, dedicated to preventing erosion and improving management.
In their rural development programmes, EU countries can contribute to this focus area through agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs), in which farmers commit to management practices that protect and enhance soil.
EU countries can apply several other rural development measures to encourage sustainable soil management:
- measures to support organic farming help to safeguard soil health and biodiversity;
- measures to support forestry development are effective against soil erosion;
- investment measures can be used to finance machinery for conservation tillage – to minimise breaking-up of the soil and to maintain a high level of soil cover in autumn and winter, thus potentially limiting GHG emissions, reducing erosion and building up soil organic matter;
- measures to support knowledge transfer, advisory services and cooperation can help farmers to address various soil threats - like erosion, acidification or loss organic matter – and foster the adoption of sustainable soil management practices adapted to local agro-ecological and farming conditions.
The European network for rural development (ENRD) also facilitates the sharing of ideas and good practices through thematic areas on resource efficiency and water and soil management.
The new CAP: 2023-27
Due to start in 2023, the new CAP will include stronger support for healthy soil, in line with the goals of the European Green Deal.
CAP specific objective
Under the Commission’s proposals, the new CAP will be built around nine specific objectives. The sustainable management of soil will be a crucial component of several objectives, in particular those focused on landscapes and biodiversity, natural resources, and climate action.
CAP strategic plans
In their CAP strategic plans, EU countries will have more flexibility to design interventions that tackle the most pressing challenges facing their soils, whilst also contributing to shared EU goals.
New green architecture
A new green architecture for the CAP will incorporate stronger rules and offer more opportunities for eco-friendly farming. For example, a significant portion of the CAP’s budget will be set aside for eco-schemes, which can support voluntary practices undertaken by farmers. The Commission published an indicative list of eco-schemes, in January 2021, including several practices beneficial for soil.
Farm Sustainability Tool for nutrients
The new CAP includes the use of the Farm Sustainability Tool for nutrients (FaST) by farmers. FaST shall provide advice to farmers on the application of fertilisers, adapted to meet actual crop requirements and ensure compliance with existing legislation on fertiliser use. The new tool will advance the optimisation of fertiliser use, bringing both economic and environmental benefits, and will also contribute to the digitalisation of agriculture by increasing farmers’ skills in the use of digital tools.
Through the common monitoring and evaluation framework (CMEF), the Commission collects a wide range of indicators to measure the progress of the CAP in reaching its policy objectives. The Commission’s agri-food data portal includes a soil dashboard, which presents some of the most relevant indicators for soil.
The CMEF also provides a framework for evaluations and external studies. In November 2020, the Commission published an independent study on the impact of the CAP on the sustainable management of soil, conducted by Alliance Environement GEIE.
Under the Commission’s proposals, the new CAP will include a reinforced performance monitoring and evaluation framework (PMEF), which will facilitate greater accountability and the transition to a performance-based delivery model.
Knowledge, research, and innovation
Developing knowledge, research and innovation will be essential to advance the possibilities of sustainable soil management.
The farm advisory system (FAS) advises farmers on how to apply sustainable soil management on their farms, comply with rules for soil protection, benefit from support available under rural development, as well as spreading knowledge of new methods and technology.
Research and innovation
The Commission also supports research and innovation to better understand the impact of agriculture and forestry on soils, as well as to develop new techniques and technologies that can progress soil-enhancing production systems. In particular, the Commission is proposing novel approaches to research and innovation, in combination with education, training, investments, and demonstration of good practices using “living labs” and “lighthouses” projects, through the Horizon Europe Mission “A Soil Deal for Europe”.
European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural productivity and Sustainability
The European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI) remains a key instrument of the future CAP to promote the creation, testing and dissemination of innovative solutions achieved through the work of Operational Groups. These Operational Groups connect farmers, foresters, researchers, advisors, businesses and environmental NGOs to work together in innovative projects in agriculture and other activities related to farming and rural areas.
Research in action: digitalisation
Digitalisation can enable farmers to improve soil fertility and reduce pollution by supporting better management systems. For example, precision agriculture uses digital location monitoring for the targeted application of nutrients and pesticides, while satellite guidance systems make it possible to use permanent pathways, known as Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF). Due to reduced compaction of the upper soil layer, the water and air regime in the soil improves, allowing for more stable yields during periods of drought and heavy rainfall.