Report cover

Report from European Environment Agency giving over of the metrics, challenges and plans for measuring soil health across Europe.  

Executive Summary:

Soil is a finite, non-renewable resource because its regeneration takes longer than a human lifetime. Soil is a fundamental part of Europe's natural capital, and it contributes to basic human needs by supporting, among other things, food provision and water purification, while acting as a major store for organic carbon and a habitat for extremely diverse biological communities.

European soils are under increasing pressure. The key trends are:

• urban sprawl and low land recycling rates, which contribute to the continued loss of soil from sealing and replacement (e.g. by construction) and to pollution from traffic and industrialisation;

• the intensification of agriculture resulting in increasing use of fertilisers and plant protection products and of heavy machinery;

• climate change, which causes weather extremes such as drought, heavy rain, landslides and wildfires.

However, land management also influences soil quality positively. Many soil functions can be improved if appropriate practices are in place, particularly to sequester soil carbon and maintain or improve soil biodiversity. Other soil functions can be prevented from further degradation, such as erosion and compaction.

Resilient, healthy soils are important to help reduce the ecological and economic impacts of unsustainable, intensive land use and weather extremes induced by climate change.

Healthy soils are an integral element of the European Green Deal and are addressed under the environmental measures of the common agricultural policy. Other policies, such as the Waste Framework Directive and the Industrial Emissions Directive, tackle emissions to soil from landfills and industrial processes. To support protection targets related to soil, its condition and functioning must be assessed using proper indicator sets and thresholds, which can demonstrate to practitioners and policymakers the success of management practices.

The development of adequate and broadly applicable indicators and thresholds is challenged by the great diversity of Europe's soils, biota and climate, as well as the varying political, economic and social conditions that lead to different priorities for settings targets and indicators among countries. There are 23 main soil types (JRC, 2008), four prevailing macroclimatic zones (3) and eight recognised soil threats (EC, 2006a), which all together form a complex matrix of different vegetation growth conditions across Europe. Currently, our knowledge of indicators and monitoring is profound; however, the definition and classification of indicators is still diverse, as are the sampling, measuring and evaluation systems.

This report describes the rationale for a series of common and broadly accepted soil health indicators to support policy. The focus is on soil threats, and indicators were selected in view of their appropriateness for assessing the condition of soil, its degradation, its resilience and its valuable services. For each indicator, a rationale is provided for using thresholds as critical limits to indicate that soil is in good condition, i.e. healthy soil, in respect of of specific soil functions and local conditions.

Related Organisations

Connected Content

Soil is an essential natural resource for all farmers. Over recent years many initiatives have sought to provide information and advice on soils and Soil Health, notably AHDB Great Soils. 

The intricate web of relationships between physical, chemical and biological soil components underpins crop and livestock health and productivity.

Policy plays a critical role in shaping the agriculture industry in the UK and Europe. Government policies can have a major impact on the way that farmers operate, the crops they grow, and the prices they receive for their products. Policy has a major effect on how land is managed and environmental outcomes.

Managing nutrients effectively is crucial for our soils, crops, livestock and environment. There are many resources and initiatives available to help. 

Help us collate the knowledge sources, organisations and initiatives out there that are seeking to improve the farmed environment