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ENVIRONMENT-EUROPE: No Consensus on Saving the Soil

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jul 22 2008 (IPS) - Soil is one of the few major areas of environmental policy to remain largely outside the purview of European Union law. Humanity’s survival might hinge on whether crops can continue to be grown in soil, yet just nine of the EU’s 27 countries have deemed soil protection a pressing enough issue to have introduced legislation on the subject at national level.

In 2006, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, stated that it wished to remedy this situation by proposing a legal directive that would apply across the Union. Among its objectives were to identify all areas at risk of such problems as erosion, landslides and salinity (the build-up of salt within the soil) over a five-year period and to compile an inventory of all contaminated sites over 25 years.

To the casual observer, such aims probably appear sensible and uncontroversial. But when the Union’s environment ministers discussed them in December last, the proposal was struck down by five governments – France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Austria. The five cited either the likely cost of implementing the initiative or a belief that soil protection is a topic better left to national legislation than to the Brussels bureaucracy.

Despite its opposition then, France has agreed to revive discussions on the dossier during its six months of holding the EU’s presidency, which began just over three weeks ago. While green campaigners have welcomed the apparent French U-turn, they are perturbed by indications that the proposal could be diluted.

Among the suggested compromises that have emerged during recent discussions among EU diplomats are that compiling the inventories would no longer be compulsory and that they would not have to be made public. “France is going in the wrong direction,” said John Hontolez, secretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an alliance of 143 organisations. “It is seriously weakening the text.”

Hontolez suggested that the political debate that has arisen as a result of the recent spike in global food prices underscored the necessity of effective legislation on soil.

“What we hear from most politicians in response to the food crisis is that we have to go back to the old policy of increasing the productivity of Europe’s soils,” he said. “This ignores the fact that productivity levels have come at a price. If you now focus productivity on loosening the use of agro-chemicals, increasing the use of fertilisers and ploughing up grasslands, I’m afraid you will be destroying the agricultural resource base in Europe even faster.”

According to the Commission, soil degradation could be depriving the EU economy of some 38 billion euros (60 billion dollars) a year.

Shielding soil from further damage is considered vital if the worst possible consequences of climate change are to be averted. EU soil is estimated to contain some 70 billion tonnes of organic carbon. That is roughly equivalent to one-tenth of all carbon that has become accumulated in the atmosphere. Peatlands, in particular, could hold up to 60 percent of all the carbon stocked in European soils, and many ecologists regard it as essential that the carbon is kept in the ground rather than released.

Soil acts as what scientists call a ‘carbon sink’ – it can absorb about 20 percent of all emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main gas triggering global warming that are attributed to human activity. Whereas organic agriculture can help ensure that soil continues playing a major role in diverting carbon from the atmosphere, degradation of the soil leads to large-scale releases of CO2. Each year British soil loses about 0.6 percent of its organic matter, and the resulting increase in CO2 emissions has been compared to putting an extra five million cars on the road.

“While science tells us how soil originated, the production process takes millions of years,” said Ladislav Miko, a senior environment official in the European Commission. “It is effectively a non-renewable resource. We cannot afford to wait for new soil to be created as it simply takes too long.”

Miko added: “We have seen quite scary figures (on the extent of soil degradation), and yet this is still not enough to get an overall agreement. The existing legal framework is clearly not sufficient.”

Gerassimos Arapis, professor at the Agricultural University of Athens, said that 500,000 sites in the EU are known to be contaminated, but about 3.5 million could be contaminated. He said the proposed directive would give much leeway to national governments to decide how ambitious they should be in protecting the soil, and argued that greater clarity is required about how implementation of the law will be financed.

Ronan Uhel from the European Environmental Agency, an EU body based in Copenhagen, said there is a need for greater research on the extent of soil degradation in Europe. “The knowledge we have at hand on a European scale is still very limited.”

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