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‘We depend on healthy soils for many of our basic needs.’

Kerstin Rosenow is Head of Unit for Research and Innovation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development. In her day-to-day work, she helps to restore and protect European soils. In this interview, she tells us about the risks and challenges, but also about the actions and new policies Europe is taking to improve land management and lead the transition towards healthy soils.
How does the soil situation in Europe compare with the global context? Is European soil in worse condition than elsewhere in the world?

Intensive land use, water scarcity, competition for land, and climate change have resulted in soil degradation worldwide. Compared to Europe, soil erosion by water, for example, is a much worse problem in large parts of Africa, South America and South-East Asia, due to intense rainfall and inappropriate land management practices – think of deforestation or intensive agriculture. Similar problems can also be found in Europe, but the scale of degradation is generally lower. At the same time, many of the most fertile soils in Europe have been sealed because of urban expansion and infrastructure development, while the compaction of agricultural soils has an impact on crop yields and the water cycle. Given that over 60% of soils in the EU are unhealthy, the situation of soils worldwide is truly a source of concern!

In Europe, which types of soil are currently most at risk?

All soils are susceptible to processes of degradation that depend on the soil context and on how soil is managed. Mineral soils with low levels of organic matter, especially in southern Europe, are increasingly at risk due to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and wildfires. Organic soils, such as those found in the peatlands of northern Europe, are threatened by drainage, which results in the loss of carbon. And of course, soils that are adjacent to urban and industrial areas are at high risk of contamination due to current and past activities. The EU Soil Observatory (EUSO) Dashboard provides a comprehensive overview of the situation across Europe.

Why is it important to preserve and restore soils? What qualifies as ‘healthy’ soil?

We depend on healthy soils for many of our basic needs – starting from food, almost all of which is growing in/on soil directly or, in the case of animal products, indirectly. Soils and the organisms they contain also perform many other key ecosystem services: keeping the nutrient cycles going, cleaning water, or storing carbon and thereby helping to mitigate climate change. This is why, for the purposes of the EU Mission Soil, we are defining “soil health” as the capacity of soils to continue performing these services in the future.

In Europe, what are the main challenges regarding soil biodiversity and sustainable management?

Intensive agriculture, urbanisation and climate change all pose major challenges to soil biodiversity and sustainable management, by causing soil degradation and the loss of essential ecosystem functions. These issues require policies to promote soil-friendly practices (based on soil coverage, agrobiodiversity and minimal soil disturbance), mitigate land use changes and raise public awareness (soil literacy) about soil health, on which we depend.

What are the objectives of the Mission Soil, and what has been done until now?

As its overarching goal, by 2030 the Mission aims to establish 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils in Europe. This year we will see the first wave of some 20 to 25 of these Mission-funded living labs being established, and similar numbers will be added during coming years. Each living lab includes several specific sites, where researchers, land managers and other stakeholders join forces to develop and test innovative solutions for the problems affecting soils in those places. 

Most of the 8 specific soil-health objectives that are defined in the Mission Implementation Plan are being addressed with actions and projects, and we expect to make progress towards their achievement. The Mission is also working towards a set of operational objectives, which include better ‘soil literacy’ across society through communication and citizen engagement, as well as a more comprehensive, integrated soil monitoring system.

An important milestone for monitoring was achieved with the launch of the EU Soil Observatory (EUSO) Dashboard last year by our colleagues in the Joint Research Centre(JRC), which already covers 17 different soil health indicators.

A key tool for communication and engagement is the Mission Manifesto which has received more than 2 600 signatures so far, including from 430 legal entities such as companies, regional authorities etc. Other important achievements already made include the link between the Mission and the Common Agricultural Policy, through the CAP Strategic Plans of many Member States and through the CAP Network, in particular the many EIP-AGRI Operational Groups that work on soil-related issues.

What are your objectives and key milestones for the coming year?

We continue to work towards the full range of objectives. Starting with the R&I programme, in addition to the establishment of additional living labs, another set of R&I projects funded by the Mission will be opened for application this year, helping to fill some of the current gaps, for example, in the international dimension. On soil-health monitoring, we count on the Directive proposed by the Commission to be adopted by the Council and Parliament this year – the EUSO and the additional data fed into it from Mission projects will play an important role in its implementation. We also expect further progress in cooperating with businesses and other private actors such as philanthropic organisations. And we will make additional efforts to strengthen the Mission’s regional and local dimension, through individual projects and targeted outreach activities.    

What collaborative activities with the ORCaSa project and Soil Carbon International Research Consortium (IRC) are envisaged?

Although it is not technically a Mission project, ORCaSa and the Soil Carbon IRC will give an important boost to the international dimension of the Mission. We were happy to have the Consortium launched as part of the first European Mission Soil Week last November in Madrid, and we are following closely the process of getting it fully established and will do our best to support it. Of course, the Soil Carbon IRC is of great interest also for other parts of EU climate action, in particular the proposed Regulation on carbon removals certification.

From a personal point of view, what do you like about soil and soil preservation?

I am passionate about soil providing the very basis of life: food, fibres, clean water, healthy climate, and a great biodiversity in it and on it. I like working with and for soils as ‘caring for soil is caring about life’, as our Mission Board Chair always says. Soils are under threat, and they have not yet received the attention at EU level in scientific but also in general and policy related terms which is in sync with their importance for the life of all Europeans. To see that we make progress with that every day, sometimes with small, incremental steps, sometimes with bigger and more important ones, is rewarding and will hopefully serve generations to come.