Brussels, 12 March 2010
Soil biodiversity: the invisible hero
Soils are home to over one quarter of all living species, yet Europe has no binding legislation to protect this precious resource. We depend on soil for food, fibres, construction materials, clean water, clean air, climate regulation, and antibiotics such as penicillin and streptomycin are derived from the soil. Soil biodiversity is the driving force behind this productive capacity, but that diversity faces numerous threats. A new report published by the European Commission suggests that mismanaging soil biodiversity could worsen climate change, jeopardise agricultural production and compromise the quality of ground water. The European Commission has been arguing for binding legislation in this area since 2006, but little progress has been made. The Soil Framework Directive is once more on the agenda of the Environment Council to be held on 15 March.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “Soil is the invisible biodiversity hero. We rely on healthy soils for some of the most fundamental ecosystem services, and without them life on our planet would grind to a halt. We share our soils, so I am convinced of the need for common legislation in this area. I am therefore calling on Environment ministers to put in place a sound regulatory framework to protect this most precious resource, and ensure we use it wisely."
A fundamental element
Soil is a living resource that provides numerous essential services, releasing nutrients in forms that can be used by plants and other organisms. When this recycling function is impaired, agriculture, forestry and ultimately all life on Earth is threatened.
The micro-organisms contained in soil contribute to water purification and help remove pollution and pathogens. The loss of this service would reduce the quality and quantity of ground and surface waters, increasing the risk of erosion and landslides in mountain areas, and of flooding in lowland areas.
Soil also contains the second largest carbon pool on the planet. The loss of soil biodiversity reduces the ability of soils to regulate the composition of the atmosphere, diminishing their role in counteracting global warming.
Soil organisms constitute a major source of chemical and genetic resources. Antibiotic resistance develops fast, so the demand for new pharmaceutical products is almost unending, and soil biodiversity can be an important source. At present, only 1% of soil microorganism species are known.
Current threats to soil biodiversity
The diversity of soil organisms is under threat from inappropriate agricultural practices, over-grazing, vegetation clearing, forest fires and poor irrigation practices. Land conversion, from grassland or forest to cropped land, results in rapid loss of soil carbon, which indirectly enhances global warming.
Urbanisation and soil sealing are a further threat, with concreting effectively killing the life in the soil beneath.
Existing policies related to soil biodiversity
Few countries have strong legislation to protect their soils, and at present no legislation or regulation specifically targeted at soil biodiversity exists at international, EU, national or regional level. The Commission first presented a legislative proposal to protect European soils in 2006, with support from the European Parliament, but opposition from six Member States means that the proposal is currently blocked in Council. The Spanish presidency will attempt to relaunch the proposal at the Environment Council on 15 March.
For more information:
MEMO/06/341 on the Thematic Strategy for soil protection.
Soil web pages on Europa: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/soil/index_en.htm.