Main authors: Catherine Bowyer , Clunie Keenleyside, Silvia Nanni, Anouchka Hoffmann, Nathalie van Haren , Karin van Boxtel, Paul Wolvekamp
iSQAPERiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Bowyer, C. et al. (2018) Initial stocktaking report on existing policy measures. iSQAPER Project Deliverable 8.1, 125 pp


Contents table
1. Introduction
2. Methodology
3. Policy trends and areas of intervention in Europe
4. Type of instruments used in Europe to secure soil health and ecosystem services
5. Soil monitoring approaches across Europe
6. Key messages from the analysis
7. Conclusions and rationale for further work

1. Introduction

Here we provide an overview of the policies used by EU-28 Member States to limit degradation on or to protect agricultural soils. Rather than commenting on the policies individually we seek to identify trends in the way soil protection is delivered. This is intended to provide a picture of policy action taking place within Member States. Often analysis of European soil protection efforts focus on EU level initiatives, but it is important to also understand the contribution at the national and regional level. This is key in light of the lack of a coordinated, EU level law to protect European soils or deliver their monitoring.

We have:

  • analysed the nationally or regionally initiated policy instruments aimed at protecting soil health on agricultural land across EU-28 Member States. The instruments reviewed are either not linked to the implementation of EU requirements or linked only in a limited way i.e.would exist in the absence of EU action;
  • examined how policy instruments operating in different areas of intervention (e.g. biodiversity, water, climate) interact to support agricultural soils protection;
  • developed key messages and conclusions as well as a rationale for further research work needed as part of the continuing effort to promote the development of a policy within the iSQAPER project and input and add value in the context of understanding soil protection policies and needs.

The analysis focuses on national and regional policy instruments that both directly and indirectly impact on agricultural soil conservation in EU Member States. It is designed to complement previous analysis of EU level instruments relevant to soil protection (see »A review of policy action at the EU level).

2. Methodology

In 2016 the European Commission conducted a review, in collaboration with Member States, of policies in Europe that protect soils both directly and indirectly. Data were gathered on the basis of a thorough literature review and reviewed by experts from national and regional bodies. This process produced an updated inventory of soil protection instruments in EU Member States and the publication by Frelih-Larsen et al, 2017 - Updated Inventory and Assessment of Soil Protection Policy Instruments in EU Member States. The analysis in this chapter builds on the inventory data set to specifically focus on the policies relevant (see definition below) to agricultural soils across Europe’s Member States.

681 policy instruments were included in the inventory in total. Of these 252 where identified as relevant for this analysis. To be considered for this analysis they had to be:

  1. nationally or regionally initiated i.e.are the result of a national action to address a threat or goal rather than the result of EU level policy drivers; and
  2. relevant to the protection of agricultural soils whether directly targeting soil protection on agricultural land or indirectly resulting in the improvement of soil condition or understanding of soil condition (ie monitoring and research activities) on agricultural land.

It should be noted that the soil inventory represents a good basis for analysis and the most comprehensive data set across all Member States available at the time of drafting. It should be noted, however, that there are some elements of bias in the inventory data set. Firstly, the inventory was intended to provide a picture of all actions in a Member State focused on soil, therefore, there was not an exclusive and fixed focused on agricultural soils. Secondly, the multiplicity of policies that impact on soil required researchers and national experts to focus effort on specific areas of interest or expertise, there was also an emphasis in the data collection process towards recording binding, regulatory measures rather than outreach or research programmes per se. This analysis, therefore, does not seek to compare or contrast coverage across Member States or the effectiveness of national laws. It is intended to review, in the context of agricultural soils, the diversity of action that exists and the types of tools in use. This is intended to inform understanding in terms of future policy design, policy options and the ability of iSQAPER to provide input into different policy futures.

The 252 policy measures identified were analysed according to: the area of intervention, and the type of policy instrument employed. Monitoring approaches were reviewed and collated.

The type of policy instruments analysed in this paper were categorised as follows and according to definitions commonly used in the European context:

  1. Regulatory (i.e. soil protection laws and strategies, environmental legislation and strategies, environmental impact assessments, standards, targets, guidelines, bans, permits and quotas, land planning and zoning instruments);
  2. Economic (i.e. liability schemes, taxation, pricing, public-private voluntary agreements);
  3. Information (i.e. farm advisory services, innovation groups, public information, training and qualifications, participation actions);
  4. Research & Innovation (i.e. assessments of soil status and ecosystem services, research projects);
  5. Monitoring (i.e. monitoring and reporting schemes that are required by public institutions to identify environmental quality or compliance with wider legal requirements).

This classification method is in line with most up to date policy analysis on the subject (Kutter, T. et al (2011), Louwagie, G. et al (2010), Frelih-Larsen, A. et al (2016)).

3. Policy trends and areas of intervention in Europe

Among the 252 measures and policies identified as relevant to agricultural soils, 17 areas of intervention have been identified as associated with Member States’ action on agricultural soil (Figure 19). It is important to note that some measures or policies fall under more than one area of intervention; there is therefore a degree of overlap between the areas of intervention identified.

D8.1 fig19
Figure 19

Soil, and agricultural soil in particular, is increasingly recognised as a key environmental resource. Some EU Member States already promote or are planning on promoting sustainable and efficient use of soil and sub-soil in agriculture through dedicated regulatory instruments (e.g. acts, ordinances, laws). More specifically, these policies aim to prevent changes in soil quality (the Netherlands) or fertility (Germany, Estonia), protect soil terrestrial ecosystems (Romania), or promote changes in the management of agricultural land with benefits for soil (France). These instruments are often used to provide a framework for soil protection and a basis for mainstreaming soil considerations into other policies.

Beyond policy approaches targeting soil as a primary objective, it is noted that a mix of policy instruments is used at Member state level to require or encourage soil protection. These instruments aim to support/limit certain land management practices; support sustainable development; coordinate land use planning; promote action in the agricultural sector to mitigate and adapt to climate change including flood prevention. With regard to land management practices, some Member States have chosen different approaches to support soil protection in agriculture. Regulating, limiting or banning the use of certain substances on agricultural soil (e.g. chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides and wastewater) seeks to prevent pollution of soil or linked water resources (for example in Slovakia, Malta, Italy, Germany, France, Wallonia – Belgium, Ireland). Alternatively, support is offered for specific management practices that are considered beneficial to soil protection such as organic farming (Finland), or more broadly changes to the way land is managed in agriculture (Croatia).

The promotion of sustainable development as an overarching policy goal in national strategies or action plans commonly encompasses support for land management practices that fosters the protection of ecosystems and natural resources, including agricultural soils. Within this broad objective, the approaches taken at national level vary according to the respective Member states’ priorities – be it to support overall soil quality (Cyprus) or certain aspects such as soil organic matter concentration (Hungary), setting targets for land take (Germany and Austria) or organic farming (Germany), or increasing land resilience and its ability to provide ecosystem services (France).

Protecting agricultural soil from uncontrolled spatial development is another key trend observed in the majority of Member states. Although varying in nature, there are a number of initiatives to extend the scope of more established approaches to land use planning and zoning to integrate agricultural soil considerations. For instance, these are aimed at ensuring the protection of agricultural land and soil and reducing land take and urban sprawl (Flanders – Belgium), preventing the impacts of uncontrolled spatial planning on soil health in agriculture (Cyprus) maintaining an adequate balance between the use and management of land for agriculture and for urban development (Hungary, Finland), and preserving environmental resources such as landscapes, arable land and green networks (Estonia). A number of initiatives aim to protect agricultural soil from contaminants and improve soil fertility (Portugal, the Netherlands and Romania).

Agricultural soils can act as a sink for carbon. The contribution of agriculture to climate change mitigation and adaptation, including the promotion of carbon storage in soils, is prioritised in a number of Member States (for example Malta, Italy, Finland and Wallonia – Belgium) as a basis for the protection of soil functionality.

Phenomena such as desertification and flooding are location-specific, hence most relevant to specific regions of Europe. In Southern European Member States there are a number of initiatives expressively focused on combating desertification (including in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria) as a threat to agricultural soils. These mostly stem from international initiatives (i.e. the UN Convention to Combat Desertification).

Economic instruments are used to promote change relevant to agricultural soils in a number of Member States. It should, however, be noted that the consequences for the agricultural soils specifically are mixed. Some instruments promote changes in land use potentially away from agricultural uses, while others promote management change and soil improvement. For example, afforestation of agricultural land is supported through national level funds (Spain and Romania) as a means to increase carbon sequestration into soil and avoid other specific soil threats, such as erosion. Other initiatives provide state aid for agricultural land drainage (Finland) or local-level subsidies to prevent and reduce floods (Wallonia – Belgium). In addition, charges are established in the event of soil pollution (Hungary) or taxes applied on pesticide use to reflect their environmental impacts (Denmark – where the tax on pesticides is intended to reflect their environmental and health impact and includes the effect of pesticides on earth worms in tax calculation).

Finally, there are a number of policies focused on improving knowledge among farmers, decision makers and the wider public community intended to promote soil protection. These outreach programmes focus on a variety of themes, including combating desertification (Portugal), moving from traditional to organic farming (Germany), promoting environmentally-friendly agriculture with likely benefits for soil (France) and enhancing soil fertility and limiting contamination of ground- and drinking water as a consequence of pollution from nutrients and pesticides (Austria).

4. Type of instruments used in Europe to secure soil health and ecosystem services

The majority of instruments identified across EU Member States relevant, directly or indirectly, to soil protection on agricultural land are regulatory in nature (Figure 20). Of these two thirds of the measures identified are binding i.e. requiring action by a third party; one third is made up of strategic measures and guidelines setting out and coordinating thinking on agricultural land, soils specifically or on environmental issues more generally.

D8.1 fig20
Figure 20

Regulatory instruments

Dedicated soil protection legislation and strategies A subset of 13 EU Member States (Figure 21) have adopted or are in the process of adopting dedicated legislation and strategies relevant to the protection of agricultural soils. By nature, the aim of these polices is to set a framework for soil protection, also for those policies (as examined in the following Sections) that have more tangential relevance to soil or certain specific aspects of it.

D8.1 fig21
Figure 21

The scope and type of the instruments adopted varies substantially across Europe, starting from whether dedicated soil protection instruments have a binding or non-binding nature. Out of 13 in total, 9 Member States have approved dedicated, binding legislation to protect agricultural soil. Such legislation takes the form of a Charta (Austria), an Ordinance (Germany), an Act (Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands and Slovakia), a Law (Portugal) or a Decree (Flanders and Wallonia – Belgium) (Box 8).

Box 8 - Dedicated soil protection legislation in Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands

In Germany, the Federal Soil Protection Ordinance sets out guidelines for good management of agricultural land, with particular emphasis on ensuring the protection of soil fertility and functions. Hungary holds a dedicated binding piece of legislation on agricultural land, the Act on the Protection of Cultivated Soil. This Act includes obligations on and duties of the soil protection authority, protection measures that should be undertaken on cultivated soil, requirements related to investments and fines and a fee set to protect organic matter in soils. The Netherlands has in place the Soil Protection Act, which as from 2018 is foreseen to be merged with the Environmental and Planning Act.

In a number of Member States soil protection appears to be increasing in importance within the political debate within a number of Member States; during the period of data collection dedicated legislation for soil protection was under development in Greece, Italy and Slovenia. For instance, two ordinances were being developed in Slovenia. In Greece, approval of a legislative proposal for framework legislation on the protection and sustainable use of soil was pending. Based on information available, it sets out a wide number of measures relevant to agricultural soil, including aimed at preventing pollution from land use, reducing sealing, producing an inventory of areas under major soil threats and raising public awareness.

On top of binding legislation, strategies and action plans dedicated to the protection of soil have been adopted in many European countries, including in Austria, Belgium (Flanders and Wallonia), Cyprus, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. These do not set out requirements that oblige change but set the policy direction at a strategic level.

Environmental legislation and strategies Beyond dedicated soil protection policies, support to the protection of various aspects of agricultural soils is offered through a wide variety of other environmental regulatory tools. The majority of Member States have in place a range of environmental legislation and strategies that, while often not dedicated to soil protection, address certain aspects helping mitigate soil threats. These include overarching instruments on environmental protection and agriculture and sectoral policies relating to water management, climate change, biodiversity, the use of fertilisers, land use, energy, waste and sustainable development.

The pollution of agricultural soils is dealt with by a number of different methods both across and within Member States. For example, overarching environmental laws are used in Greece and Finland to limit soil pollution. In Greece the Law for the Protection of the Environment allows ordinances to be passed to address soil threats, including pollution from the use of fertilisers and pesticides and the use of sludge on agricultural land. Similarly, the Finnish Environmental Protection Act focuses on the maintenance of agricultural soil quality by establishing provisions on the sustainable use of fertilisers and by-products of fertilization.

Other Member States have dedicated legislation relating to the use of certain products and substances on agricultural soil to avoid detrimental soil effects or enhance certain functions. For example, Italy passed the Decree on Technical Rules and Criteria for Agricultural Use of Manure and Production of Agricultural Use of Digestate, as well as quality standards for soil nutrients and monitoring obligations for wastewater use in agriculture. The German Federal Government issued the Circular Economy Act, which regulates the use, recycling and application on land of bio-waste and sewage sludge with implication for soil protection on agricultural land.

International environmental agreements and initiatives are a powerful driver for addressing certain threats to agricultural soils within some EU Member States, i.e. desertification, erosion and floods. For instance, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and international agreements on Sustainable Development . In relation to the former, Southern European Member States – including Greece, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain – emphasise addressing desertification as a key issue for agricultural soils. This is done through guidelines attached to action plans fulfilling duties under the UN Convention on Combating Desertification. Delivering international commitments on sustainable development has been explicitly linked in some Member States, not only in terms of delivering protection of agricultural soil but also in terms of monitoring progress towards key goals. For example, the Hungarian Strategy for Sustainable Development (2012 to 2024) highlights the importance of agricultural land as a resource for Hungary and includes as a specific objective that soil organic matter should be sustained. The German National Sustainable Development Strategy, as part of its core goals, includes a land take target and a target for areas of land farmer organically.

Land planning and zoning legislation Protecting agricultural soil from uncontrolled spatial development operations is another key trend among many European Member States (Figure 22). Although varying in nature, there are a number of initiatives to extend the scope of established approaches to land use planning and zoning and integrate agricultural soil considerations. This includes action aimed at ensuring the protection of agricultural land and soil and reducing land take and urban sprawl (Flanders – Belgium), preventing the impacts of uncontrolled spatial planning on soil health in agriculture (Cyprus), maintaining an adequate balance between the use and management of land for agriculture and for urban development (Hungary, Finland), and preserving environmental resources such as landscapes, arable land and green networks (Estonia). There are also a number of land use planning initiatives that aim to protect agricultural soil from contaminants and improve soil fertility (Portugal and Romania).

D8.1 fig22
Figure 22

Economic instruments

Beyond regulatory drivers, the use of economic incentives that are outside the scope of the Common Agricultural Policy plays a role in supporting agricultural soil protection. However, their use is limited to a subset of Member states (Figure 23). Economic support may be in the form of payments for activities undertaken to protect agricultural soils (Flanders – Belgium, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Romania, Spain), the use of liability schemes (Estonia and Ireland) or of pricing for certain activities (France, Germany, Hungary), and the establishment of voluntary agreements (the Netherlands) (Box 9). In Denmark a tax on pesticides has been targeted to reflect the effect of the pesticide on health and on the environment in order to guide the use towards the least harmful pesticides. Soil protection is not directly targeted, but the effect of the pesticides on earth worms is included in the calculation of the tax.

D8.1 fig23
Figure 23

Box 9: Green Deals in the Netherlands

The Green Deals in the Netherlands represents an innovative approach to encourage cooperation among different actors within the economy are the. They are an accessible approach for companies, stakeholder organizations, interest groups and local and regional governmental bodies to work synergistically with the central government on pursuing green growth. If appropriately designed, the Green Deals may be a powerful approach to bring stakeholder cooperating in relation to soil protection on agricultural land.

Information instruments and Research & Innovation

Enhancing farmers, policy-makers and the wider public’s knowledge on the importance of soil protection is key to informed land management decision making. To this end, information instruments are made use of (Figure 24) and Research & Innovation supported to facilitate the protection of agricultural soils.

D8.1 fig24
Figure 24

Within the information instruments, the use of farm advisory services (Austria, Finland, the Netherlands), innovation groups (the Netherlands), participatory actions (Austria (Box 10), France, the Netherlands), public information (Austria, Flanders – Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands) and training opportunities and knowledge exchanges (Austria, Germany, the Netherlands) are used. In additional some Member States have developed programmes specifically tailored at the promotion of specific farming models, for example, organic farming, intended to promote awareness of more sustainable land management and access to associated products (see Box 11).

Box 10 : Austria’s Soil Advisory Forum

The Forum advises on soil fertility and soil protection at Federal level. The advisory board produces guidelines that are non-binding but are used as a technical basis for promoting soil conservation during the implementation of other policies, including the Rural Development Programmes.  

Box 11: Supporting organic farming in Finland and Germany

With the aim of promoting more sustainable management practices in agriculture, the Finnish ‘Development Programme for the Organic Production Sector to 2020’ sets out provisions aimed at developing the sector and improving access to organic products, with positive implications for soil protection. In Germany, the ‘Federal Programme for Organic and Sustainable Farming’ sets out a vision to realize sustainable agriculture and food production. The programme support research studies and practical advice to farmers on how to transition from traditional to organic farming. This is foreseen to have positive implications for soils, especially reducing erosion and halting soil organic matter loss.

Research & Innovation projects have high potential to provide up-to-date information and data on soil conditions and techniques in order to enhance its protection. The extent and focus varies across Member States. Examples include the French Agro-ecological project (Box 12) which aims to promote environmentally-friendly agriculture, including benefits for soil, through improved knowledge, capacity building and encouraging cooperation between scientists and practitioners. Lithuania is being running a research programme (2016 – 2020) on Agro-chemical soil properties and the creation of a related database. Similarly, the Polish National Centre for Research and Development runs a project aimed at developing efficient and sustainable management techniques to increase crop productivity in organic farming.

Box 12: The French Agro-ecological project

The French Agro-ecological Project sets a strategy towards the promotion of environmentally-friendly agriculture. It aims to raise awareness and increase knowledge and training opportunities for farmers, land owners and agricultural actors, encourage collaboration between the scientific community and land managers, and promote environmentally-friendly changes in farming practices, with benefits for soils. One of the proposed ‘toolboxes’ is specifically on soil conservation, while others are indirectly related to it (e.g. crop diversification, use of fertilisers and use of plant protection products).

5. Soil monitoring approaches across Europe

Soils as a natural resource are highly heterogeneous, both in relation to the variation of soil types in Europe and their resilience to external pressures. Systems that measure and monitor changes in soil quality and status are key to understanding pressures experienced and focusing policy and practical action. Spatially-located and historic data can provide the information needed to assess the effects of current farming systems and land use on soil quality, support the development of new farming systems that are beneficial to soil, and guide the development of related policies.

According to the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection, EU Member States are encouraged to rely on existing monitoring schemes available at national level . A more harmonised monitoring approach has yet to be developed at EU level. Across EU Member States (see Table 2 for information on types of approaches employed), monitoring systems are both public and private, although the majority are publicly-funded systems. Public funded systems include those in Austria, Belgium (Flanders and Wallonia), Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. Cyprus and the Netherlands have private monitoring systems in place.

Some Member States have programmes of soil monitoring that cover all soils; while others combine this with monitoring specific to agricultural land. For example, in Wallonia, the Soil Information System is a comprehensive soil database that provides ancillary geo-data relevant to CAP payments and a wider set of instruments – a national soil map and up-to-date data on soil organic matter content and compaction – relevant to monitoring agricultural soils. Similar is the Environmental Survey in Austria (Box 13).

Box 13: The Austrian Environmental Survey

The Environmental Survey in Austria is based on approximately 6,000 plots and provides information on the variability of soil across the country. The soil monitoring parameters of the Environmental Survey are used to implement a significant number of policies, including the sustainable development strategy on land take, erosion and pollutants, and the biodiversity strategy touching upon soil biodiversity and sealing.

Examples of more focused approaches to monitoring agricultural land include the following. In Germany long term soil monitoring is required under the Federal Soil Protection Act this includes specific information on the status of cropland/agricultural soil across the country. It monitors crop yields and environmental parameters with the aim to identify both physical and legislative and regulatory gaps in soil and water conservation. The Croatian Ordinance on the ‘Methodology for monitoring the state of agricultural land’ prescribes the permanent monitoring of the state of agricultural land and soil and their changes. Similarly, the Hungarian Soil Information and Monitoring System (SIMS), which was established through the Act on the protection of Cultivated Soil, provides yearly data on the condition of soils nation-wide. Agricultural soils are particularly well monitored as most sampling points (864 out of 1235) are located on arable land.

A number of Member states have developed monitoring systems focused on specific soil functions. For instance, the French Earthworms Programme is undertaken by the Observatory of Rennes and produces national-wide data on soil biodiversity status on agricultural and natural land. Observations of soil biodiversity are undertaken through a participatory process, in collaboration with the wider public, including farmers, naturalists, land managers, and gardeners. The Survey of Agricultural Soils (2008 – 2018) undertaken in Germany by Thünen Institute aims to take stock of the status of organic carbon content in agricultural soils country-wide and feed into the reporting obligations required by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. The Italian Landslides Inventory realized by ISPRA has the aim to support landslide prevention and localization, including on agricultural land, and it is of use for planning mitigation measures. The Spanish National Inventory of Soil Erosion is a Geographical Information System for monitoring and assessing soil erosion processes.

With regard to soil remediation, the Land Information Register (LIR) is a key monitor instrument to steer the Flemish soil remediation policy. It monitors progress in soil remediation and provide prospective landowners with information on soil quality, including on agricultural soils. In Bulgaria, the Liability for Prevention and Remedying of Environmental Damage Act (article 11) requires that a national database on the status of soil is created and maintained.

Table 3: Examples of soil monitoring systems in place in EU Member States and considering parameters relevant to agricultural land Source - Own compilation

Member State Detail of the monitoring system  
Austria Environmental Survey including coverage of soil pH, carbonate concentration, nutrients, heavy metals, humus content, particle size distribution 
Flanders (Belgium) Land Information Register (LIR) including information on soil contamination Web Portal to Data and Information on the (Sub)Soil of Flanders including information on erosion
Wallonia (Belgium) Soil Information System includes national soil map, pedologic information, soil organic carbon, sealed areas, soil compaction, erosion by water, ancillary geo-data
Bulgaria Land and Soil Monitoring system includes information on heavy metals and metalloid, total nitrogen, phosphorus, soil organic carbon, pH, soil sealing, soil contamination
Croatia Permanent Monitoring of the State of Agricultural Land and Soil Long-term Data on total SOC stock changes, nitrogen and organic carbon trends Soil Protection Information System and a soil and land inventory (forthcoming)
Estonia National Environmental Monitoring Programme includes monitoring of pHKCl, P, K, Ca, Mg, Cu, Mn, B, humus content, soil organic carbon stock in humus, porosity, bulk density, textural class, heavy metals Cd, Pb, Cr, Cu, Ni, Zn, Hg content and chemical analyses of pesticide residues in the soil
France Earthworms Programme to consider soil biodiversity National Observatory for the Sealing of Agricultural Land
Germany Long Term Soil Monitoring system includes consideration of crop yields and environmental parameters Survey of Agricultural Soils includes organic carbon content
Hungary Soil Information and Monitoring System includes acidity and carbonate status, texture, depth of humus layer, hydrophysical categories, available moisture content, phosphorous, potassium, heavy metal content in relation to As, Zn, Hg, Cd, Cr, Co Mo, Pb, Cu
Romania Soil Quality Monitoring System includes the detailed analysis of soil on 8x8 km grid Slovenia Monitoring of the Status of Soil (forthcoming)

6. Key messages from the analysis

A number of EU Member States make use of dedicated soil protection legislation or strategic instruments to protect agricultural soils. These can also be used to mainstream soil considerations into other policies, e.g. other environmental legislation or land planning instruments. In addition, others have measures under development (e.g. Italy, Greece). However, coverage across Member States is inconsistent and in complete. In some cases, dedicated legislation and strategies linked to the treatment of soil protection, and specifically the protection of agricultural soils, are absent or focus only of specific functions - i.e. decontamination of soil pollution or enhancing soil organic matter.

The vast majority of Member States rely on environmental policies not dedicated to soils or agricultural soils to address agricultural soil health. These instruments include measures focused on land use planning, biodiversity protection, water management, sustainable development, climate change mitigation and adaptation, energy and waste. Although this approach allows specific aspects of soil protection on agricultural land to be addressed it appears rather uncoordinated.

In a limited number of Member States economic incentives from national funding sources, (beyond the support provided by the Common Agricultural Policy) play a role in supporting agricultural soil protection. Economic support is provided by Member States in a number of forms: as payments for activities on agricultural land (Germany, Greece, Ireland, Romania, Spain), in the form of liability schemes (Estonia, Ireland), as a charge on certain activities taking place on agricultural soil (Greece, France, Germany, Hungary), and as public-private partnerships (the Netherlands). In addition knowledge enhancement tools are supported with public funds by a number of Member States, as a mean to facilitate better informed soil protection choices. These include the use of advisory services (Austria, Finland, the Netherlands), of innovation groups (the Netherlands), of participation actions (Austria, France, the Netherlands) and of training opportunities and knowledge sharing (Austria, Germany, the Netherlands). Economic and information actions provide an opportunity to respond to national soil needs.

While some Member States have detailed and wide‐ranging monitoring systems of soil quality (e.g. Hungary, Romania), because such systems reflect soil threats and priorities that are specific to national or regional conditions, comparing results and data quality is challenging. Moreover, coverage of systems in some Member States appears less systematic in terms of data and spatial coverage.

7. Conclusions and rationale for further work

The analysis of the national initiatives in the European Member States confirms that there are a number of comprehensive or dedicated policies in place that elevate agricultural soil protection as a key priority. In absence of strategic political direction at national level, support to the protection of agricultural soil is offered through overarching environmental legislation, policies or land planning legislation. International efforts on desertification and sustainable development also act as drivers for protecting agricultural soil in certain EU Member States, as well as economic incentives and information actions support tackling specific aspects of soil protection in agriculture.

However, the lack of strategic coordination is an important theme and many national policies that currently deal with soil are sectoral (i.e. only taking into account specific aspects of soil protection). Moreover, few Member States systematically, strategically and specifically deal with questions of soil management on agricultural land in a way that, for example, contamination of land is increasingly dealt with.

In absence of an EU-wide approach to monitoring soil quality on agricultural land, the number and quality of monitoring system relevant to soil protection varies widely across Member States. While some Member States appear to have comprehensive monitoring systems for agricultural soils, others appear limited or fragmented.

In order to understand better and draw some commons threads on the extent to which the policies in place across EU-28 Member States deliver soil protection on agricultural land, it is necessary to take a further step. This aims to scope and understand the scale at which the policies identified are applied at national level and the drivers of uptake on the ground.

One way to address this is through more in-depth, national case studies. In discussion with project partners, the aim is to undertake a range of national case studies across Europe, with particular interest for Portugal, Estonia, Slovenia and Italy. The cases studies would take a bottom-up approach and seek to understand the following:

  • The Member State’s context with regard to soil degradation processes on agricultural land;
  • The importance of soil management issues at political level and the institutional set-up in place;
  • The main drivers of soil management on agricultural land (e.g. policy, economic, social, technological) and the likely scale of delivery (e.g. field, farm, region, landscape, catchment level), with particular emphasis on:
    - what policies and policy settings are most influential in driving soil management decisions at farm level.

Beyond Europe, this paper has been shared with iSQAPER partners in China. It has formed the basis for structuring a comparable analysis of the types of instruments used in China to protection soil on agricultural land. This analysis is being conducted as a collaborative effort between IEEP and Chinese partners of the project. The aim is to provide a common frame for analysing the policies in place for the protection of agricultural soils to allow common trends, differences and potentially useful case examples to be identified to inform potential exchange of practices and approaches.


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see


Go To Top