|Thorfinn Stainforth, Catherine Bowyer, Luuk Fleskens, Jane Brandt
|Stainforth et al. (2020) Integrated soil quality assessment - good quality soils support environmental protection, climate action and rural development: the iSQAPER Toolkit - H2020 Research conclusions for policy makers. iSQAPER Project Deliverable 8.4, 18 pp
Results from long-term experiments as well as farm surveys completed under iSQAPER have identified that key management practices or land management combinations reviewed have a predominantly positive impact on soil quality. Reduced tillage, organic agriculture, organic matter inputs and crop rotation were all found to positively affect soil quality. In some cases there may be trade-offs between different ecosystem services, highlighting the importance of tailoring management to local conditions and baselines (Bai et al. 2018). However, recognising these interventions and implementing them coherently across arable land would represent significant steps towards supporting improved soil quality. In general, the AMPs have a variety of synergies across different sustainability goals and their deployment would have benefits for biodiversity, climate, and the resilience of the rural economy and landscape.
Within the EU, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is highlighted as central to the ability to address soil quality questions (Meredith 2019). Actions under the CAP were identified as important in their own right, but they are also key to delivering goals across multiple other policies that are highly relevant for soil protection, for example the Water Framework Directive (Farmer 2020) and the Nitrates Directive. The indicators developed under iSQAPER are very important in this context, but perhaps most important at the Member State and regional level, where the operational context of these policies is developed and monitored. They could be used to make a more concrete link between agricultural subsidies and soil quality, or incorporated in the design of eco-schemes under the CAP in a way that governments could easily monitor.
One important policy issue to highlight is the need for a long-term perspective with regard to soils. It can take many years to reach the potential positive changes needed in soil quality, and policy instruments need to reflect this. Land managers need predictability and long-term certainty in order to implement measures optimally and invest as needed. This should ideally be at the decadal time frame, not just year to year, or CAP cycle to CAP cycle. At the same time, monitoring needs to be adaptable and dynamic enough to give accurate reflections of changes in the shorter to medium term in order to allow for changes in soil management as needed and to reflect the urgency of the sustainability challenges we face, as reported by a number of international monitoring reports from the IPCC, IPBES, and the EEA. iSQAPER has shown that those monitoring tools can already usefully be deployed, but they need to be more systematically accounted for.
The European Green Deal, and its ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ (F2F) and ‘2030 Biodiversity Strategy’ spell out a number of ambitious goals which will rely on improved soil quality, and hopefully in turn contribute to it. One of the important aims of the Green Deal is to comprehensively address the challenges of creating holistic, sustainable food systems by recognising the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet. Soil quality is at the centre of these challenges, and needs to be integrated and dealt with coherently between the new CAP, F2F, and Biodiversity Strategy. However, despite this being the case, and to some extent acknowledged as such, it is still the case that in comparison to other environmental threats, the availability of systematic data and monitoring of soils is relatively poor. It can be argued that this lack of data obscures how bad the situation is, and is hindering action in this area.
The central role of soils in climate mitigation and adaptation is also increasingly recognised and must be integrated into the EU’s climate policy architecture. However, formal designation of policies and high-level strategies for carbon sequestration in arable soils is inconsistent and quite weak in some Member States. Enhanced monitoring and assessment will be important for the future implementation of credible climate policies in the agricultural sector.
The iSQAPER project has developed a toolkit which can be helpful in implementing this integration (»The iSQAPER toolkit – research conclusions for policy makers).
Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see