European Court of Auditors(ECA) on July 12, 2023. published Special Report 19/2023 entitled. “EU Action for Sustainable Soil Management – Unambitious Standards and Insufficient Targeting of Measures” (2023/C 245/07). The ECA covered the 2014 – 2020 programming period and plans for 2023 – 2027. The evaluation was conducted by Chamber I, which deals with expenses related to the sustainable use of natural resources.
The auditors assessed whether the EC and member states were effectively using available EU tools to manage agricultural soils and natural fertilizers in a sustainable manner. The results of the ECA’s audit showed that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) tools have not been applied sufficiently and that much remains to be done to improve soil health.
The state of soils in the European Union
Soils are essential for sustaining life on Earth, providing nutrients, water, oxygen and a substrate for plants. Since they are a non-renewable resource, they require special care and protection. According to a report published by the ECA, 60-70% of soils in Europe are in poor condition, partly due to soil and fertilizer management practices. Improvements in this area are to be encouraged by tools made available under the CAP and the Nitrates Directive.
Soil organic matter
Peatland drainage leads to the loss of organic carbon, which is the main component of soil organic matter. Data collected by the European Commission shows that peatlands cover 8% of the EU’s area, and it is estimated that 50% of them are drained. In order to protect carbon-rich soils, a new GAEC standard for the protection of wetlands and peatlands (GAEC 2) has been incorporated into the Common Agricultural Policy. Only 11 member states have decided to implement it from 2023, while the others have postponed the procedures in accordance with Regulation (EU) 2021/2115 until 2024 or 2025.
The importance of the nitrate directive
Nitrogen is the main nutrient that plants need for growth. Deficiency of this component can lead to soil degradation and erosion. In turn, when used in excess, it can cause water pollution and eutrophication. The Nitrates Directive focuses on nitrate pollution from agriculture. Sets a limit on the use of nitrogen from livestock manure. It focuses on agricultural practices, such as using the right amount of nitrogen for the crop type, crop cycle and climatic conditions, and avoiding application during periods of heavy rainfall or on flooded or frozen land. With regard to the Nitrates Directive, the principle of subsidiarity applies in connection with Article 5 (1). 3 of the Treaty on European Union.
Sustainable development goals support soil conservation
Established in 2015. Sustainable development goals apply to:
- Goal 1: Eliminate poverty in all its forms worldwide.
- Goal 2: Eliminate hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
- Goal 3: Ensure a healthy life for all people of all ages and promote prosperity.
- Goal 4: Provide quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.
- Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.
- Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all through sustainable management of water resources.
- Goal 7: Ensure affordable access to sources of stable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
- Goal 8: Promote stable, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all people.
- Goal 9: Build stable infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.
- Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and between countries.
- Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements safe, stable, sustainable and inclusive.
- Goal 12: Ensure patterns of sustainable consumption and production.
- Goal 13: Take urgent action to address climate change and its impacts.
- Goal 14: Protect the oceans, seas and marine resources and use them sustainably.
- Goal 15: Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.
- Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies, ensure access to justice for all, and build effective and accountable, inclusive institutions at all levels.
- Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.
The European Union is committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations, seven of which have a direct or indirect impact on soils.
Soil and fertilizer management solutions
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The Food and Agriculture Organization has specified in a manual Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management, published in 2018, agricultural practices that minimize negative impacts on soils, such as the use of cover crops, reduced tillage, crop rotation, optimal nutrient application and protection of carbon-rich soils, but also outlined practices to avoid, such as crop burning and over-fertilization.
European Court of Auditors – recommendations
The European Court of Auditors, based on the conclusions of its audit, recommends that the EC:
1) reviewed and reported on the level of ambition of existing standards, and evaluated the results of their implementation;
2) Provided information on the targeting of the CAP’s voluntary measures to the most pressing soil problems of a local nature;
3) Restricted the use of derogations and reviewed cases of conflicting objectives in other policy areas;
4) Improved databases at the EU level by eliminating information gaps at the member state level.