Mission: Caring for Soil is Caring for Life
Horizon Europe adopts five mission areas as part of its commitment to solving some of the largest challenges facing our world. Under these areas, five missions are proposed that will progress the goals of the European Green Deal, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, and the Sustainable Development Goals. Under the Soil health and food mission area, the proposed mission is called ‘Caring for Soil is Caring for Life’. In this post we lay-out the background and aims of this mission.
One fact is clear, life on earth needs better soil health, defined in this mission as “the continued capacity of soils to support ecosystem services, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Green Deal”. Soils are essential for all life-sustaining processes on our planet, and provide essential ecosystem services such as storing and purifying water, capturing carbon, producing nutritious and safe food, nutrient cycling, protecting biodiversity, and supporting the quality of our landscapes. Importantly, in our lifetimes soil represents a critical non-renewable resource, as a single centimetre of topsoil can take hundreds of years to form, yet can be lost in a single rainstorm. Across Europe and the rest of the globe, however, the greatest threat to soils comes from human activities, which drive their continual degradation. In addition to significant ecological damage, soil degradation is associated with costs exceeding €50 billion per year in the EU, and can increase societal vulnerability to extreme weather events, food insecurity, compromised food safety, and political instability.
Whether soil degradation is caused by unsustainable management practices in agriculture and forestry, contamination from industry, or soil sealing by urbanisation, it is a difficult process to reverse and the soil’s capacity to carry out the aforementioned ecosystem services is consequently diminished. Current management practices in the EU have left 60-70% of our soils unhealthy, directly impacting the safe production of our food. There is an alarming array of EU data that highlights the gravity of this problem, including 2.8 million potentially contaminated sites, 83% of EU soils with residual pesticides, 24% of land with unsustainable water erosion rates, and in agricultural soils, 21% with cadmium concentration above the limit for drinking water, 6% with heavy metal content potentially unsafe for food production, and 65-75% with nutrient input at levels that risk eutrophication of soils and water.
The proposed mission aims to give recognition to soil as an invaluable resource and put Europe on a trajectory towards sustainable land and soil management, as part of a wider, green transition. With the mission ‘Caring for Soil is Caring for Life’, by 2030, at least 75% of soils in each EU Member State will be healthy, or show a significant improvement towards meeting accepted thresholds of indicators, to support ecosystem services. The mission moves to ensure future generations can inherit clean, productive and resilient soils. The aims of the mission are key to meeting the ambitions of the Green Deal to increase the EU’s climate performance (SDG 13), achieve zero-pollution (SDG 6 and 10), preserve and restore biodiversity and safeguard our forests (SDG 15), and promote a healthy and environmentally friendly food system (SDG 2).
To achieve this goal, the EC has set forth the following 8 objectives and targets for this mission by 2030:
- Objective 1: Reduce land degradation, including desertification and salinization.
- Target 1.1: 50% of degraded land is restored moving beyond land degradation neutrality
- Objective 2: Conserve (e.g. forests, permanent pastures, wetlands) and increase soil organic carbon stocks
- Target 2.1: current carbon concentration losses on cultivated land (0.5% per year) are reversed to an increase by 0.1-0.4% per year;
- Target 2.2: the area of managed peatlands losing carbon is reduced by 30-50%.
- Objective 3: No net soil sealing and increase the re-use of urban soils for urban development.
- Target 3.1: switch from 2.4% to no net soil sealing;
- Target 3.2: the current rate of soil re-use is increased from current 13% to 50% to help meet the EU target of no net land take by 2050.
- Objective 4 Reduce soil pollution and enhance restoration
- Target 4.1: at least 25% area of EU farmland under organic agriculture;
- Target 4.2: a further 5-25% of land with reduced risk from eutrophication, pesticides, anti-microbials and other agrochemicals and contaminants;
- Note: This goes beyond the Green Deal 2030 targets of reducing by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides and the use of more hazardous pesticides; reducing nutrient losses by at least 50%; reducing fertilizer use by at least 20%;
- Target 4.3: a doubling of the rate of restoration of polluted sites.
- Objective 5: Prevent erosion
- Target 5.1: stop erosion on 30-50% of land with unsustainable erosion rates.
- Objective 6: Improve soil structure to enhance habitat quality for soil biota and crops.
- Target 6.1: soils with high-density subsoils are reduced by 30 to 50%.
- Objective 7: Reduce the EU global footprint on soils.
- Target 7.1: the impact of EU’s food, timber and biomass imports on land degradation are reduced by 20-40 %.
- Objective 8: Increase soil literacy in society across Member States.
- Target 8.1: soil health is firmly embedded in schools and educational curricula;
- Target 8.2: uptake of soil health training by land managers and advisors is increased;
- Target 8.3: understanding of impact of consumer choices on soil health is increased.
Through these actions, the mission can raise society’s awareness of the importance of healthy soils and direct Europe towards sustainable land and soil management. This will improve the functioning of food and bio-based value chains, while creating conditions for greater biodiversity and climate resilience. ‘Caring for Soils is Caring for Life’ will be a joint endeavour with a focus on communities of people from different walks of life, from citizens, to land managers, to policymakers. Through the vision, the work plan, citizen engagement, and Research and Innovation (R&I) tools, the mission will transform land management practices, leading us towards improved soil health and secure ecosystem services.
Read more about Horizon Europe
Read overview of all Horizon Europe Missions
Visit the European Commission’s Caring for Soil is Caring for Life mission page