EU auditors call out European Commission’s lack of efforts to improve soil health

Marta Pacheco

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper)  With two-thirds of soils in Europe in bad condition, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) said that EU rules and funds to manage farmland soils and manure sustainably are underused.

Improving soil health is crucial for sustainable agriculture in Europe, as it directly impacts crop productivity and long-term soil fertility. It also affects biodiversity and the ecosystem balance across Europe. 

EU auditors also noted that current standards lack ambition and EU countries have not been targeting funds on areas with the most urgent soil problems. 

The auditors assessed whether the European Commission and EU countries had made effective use of the EU tools for managing agricultural soils and manure sustainably. The sample included five EU countries: Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, and the Netherlands.

“EU countries should have allocated funding to areas with acute soil problems. However, they only channeled a small proportion of their EU rural development funds in this way. Their rural development programs contained few manure management measures, despite known problems with nitrogen surpluses,” reads ECA’s press statement.

Wake up call

ECA’s warning is a wake-up call for the Commission to take efficient action, since EU rules, such as those governing the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the Nitrates Directive, encourage improvements in soil and manure management. The latest audit from EU auditors shows that between 60 % and 70 % of soils in Europe are unhealthy, in part due to poor soil and manure management practices. 

“Soil is essential for life and a non-renewable resource,” said Eva Lindström, the ECA member in charge of the report. “But in Europe, large areas of soil are unhealthy. This should serve as a wake-up call for the EU to roll up its sleeves and bring our soils back to good health. The upcoming changes to EU rules are an opportunity for EU lawmakers to raise soil standards across Europe.” 

ECA said the Commission struggles to provide an overview of how EU countries apply manure management requirements because they provide incomplete data. These gaps, ECA added, also mean that EU averages cannot be calculated and derogations render the restrictions on applying manure less effective. 

“For example, soil pollution increased in farms that received derogations on nitrogen limits (…) and infringement procedures against countries in respect of the Nitrates Directive are very lengthy,” ECA added.

Commission’s soil law

The Commission has been preparing a legislative initiative on protecting, managing, and restoring EU soils, to achieve healthy soils by 2050. With that goal in mind, the EU executive has recently published a proposal for a new EU directive on soil health, which will be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council in the months to come. 

ECA hopes that the new laws will address the excessive use of fertilizers in farming, which it recognizes as having a negative impact on water quality and the variety of plant and animal life. 

In addition, previous research indicates that maintaining soil health is key to mitigating climate change in Europe since healthy soils act as carbon sinks, sequestering greenhouse gases and helping to combat rising atmospheric CO2 levels.

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Marta Pacheco is the Brussels Morning European Commission Editor. She studied Political Science and Media & Journalism at the Catholic University of Portugal (UCP). A former Blue Book trainee of the European Commission, Marta has a keen interest in global affairs and experience in EU and diplomatic affairs reporting.