Soil is defined as the top layer of the earth’s crust. It is formed by mineral particles, organic matter, water, air and living organisms. It is in fact an extremely complex, variable and living medium. As soil formation is an extremely slow process, soil can be considered essentially as a non-renewable resource. The interface between the earth, the air and the water soil performs many vital functions: food and other biomass production, storage, filtration and transformation of many substances including water, carbon, nitrogen. Soil has a role as a habitat and gene pool, serves as a platform for human activities, landscape and heritage and acts as a provider of raw materials. It contains around twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and three times the amount to be found in vegetation. These functions are worthy of protection because of their socio-economic as well as environmental importance.
Soil is, however, increasingly degrading, both in the EU and at global level. Erosion, loss of organic matter, compaction, salinisation, landslides, contamination, sealing… have negative impacts on human health, natural ecosystems and climate, as well as on our economy. Soil degradation has not only transboundary effects, it also comes with high costs. Problems linked to soil degradation need to be dealt with beyond the areas that are degraded. In addition, the reduction in environmental services as a result of a loss of national soil capital must be compensated by increased pressures on remaining soils or on the soils of other territories.
At the moment, only a few EU Member States have specific legislation on soil protection. Soil is not subject to a comprehensive and coherent set of rules in the Union. Existing EU policies in areas such as agriculture, water, waste, chemicals, and prevention of industrial pollution do indirectly contribute to the protection of soils. But as these policies have other aims and scope of action, they are not sufficient to ensure an adequate level of protection for all soils in Europe.
The continued unsustainable use of soils is compromising the Union’s domestic and international biodiversity and climate change objectives. For all these reasons, the Commission adopted a Soil Thematic Strategy (COM(2006) 231) on 22 September 2006 with the objective to protect soils across the EU. While the Commission in May 2014 decided to withdraw the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive, the Seventh Environment Action Programme, which entered into force on 17 January 2014, recognises that soil degradation is a serious challenge. It provides that by 2020 land is managed sustainably in the Union, soil is adequately protected and the remediation of contaminated sites is well underway and commits the EU and its Member States to increasing efforts to reduce soil erosion and increase soil organic matter and to remediate contaminated sites.