Threats to soil quality in Europe

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During the recent years, there has been a surge of concern and attention in Europe to soil degradation processes. Initiated by the German Ministry for Environment in 1998 with the first European Soil Forum a process has been developing over the past ten years leading to the adoption by the European Commission in September 2006 of the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection including a proposal for a Soil framework Directive aiming to the reduction of the exponentially growing soil degradation processes in Europe and to the establishment of a legislative framework allowing for the sustainable use of the limited, non-renewable, natural resource.

One of the most innovative aspects of the newly proposed Soil Thematic Strategy for the EU is the recognition of the multifunctionality of soils. Previous legislation, like the soil protection act of 1930’ of the USA, has been essentially focusing on soil protection in relation to the single function of soils as the substrate for food and fiber production (agricultural function). Therefore, traditional definitions of soil quality have been related to the quality of soils for agriculture. Most of the soil science achievements of the past have been related to this mono-functional perspective on soils, starting with the National and International soil classification systems (USDA Soil taxonomy, FAO, WRB, etc…), all focusing mostly on the classification of soils under an agricultural perspective.

The adoption of the EU Soil thematic strategy opens new perspectives towards a new definition of soil quality taking into account the various functions of soils: food and fiber production, buffering and filtering of contaminants, biodiversity pool, archive of cultural heritage, source of raw materials, substrate for housing and infrastructure, etc…

The re-definition of soil quality will also have a major impact on the environmental reporting process, both at national and International level. Soil Quality is a recognized indicator by the OECD countries and is included in the list of agro-environmental indicators relevant to EUROSTAT as well as to EEA. A more robust and innovative definition of soil quality for Europe will allow more efficient reporting about the status of the environment and will allow to design appropriate monitoring systems for detecting changes in soil quality over time.

The special session during EUROSOIL 2008 dedicated to the threats to soil quality in Europe has allowed for an indepth
analysis of the status of research in this are and the identification of still existing research gaps for future action. The full coverage of the threats identified within the Soil Thematic Strategy will allow to further support the on-going process towards better soil protection in Europe.

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