Soil System Sciences

Soil science and policy challenges

Sarah Connors, EGU Science Policy Fellow
Antonio Jordán, University of Seville


Discussions during the 5th International Conference of Fire Effects on Soil Properties in the O’Brien Centre for Science, Dublin, Ireland (2015), by Antonio Jordán. Distributed by Imaggeo.

Soil is often considered as the skin of the Earth and is located at the interface between the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. Soil is the physical and nutritional support for living organisms in emerged areas.

The major soil typws of Europe.

From another point of view, soil is the basis for the production of food, fiber, medicines, fuel and ecosystem resources or services. However, soil is a limited resource because of its low formation rate and finite area of land. Although human activity has always contributed to soil degradation, the pressure on soil resources has particularly increased over the last century. This is because of the intensification of crops and productive activities, reduction of forest and natural areas and the expansion of urban areas. About a third of the world soil surface is moderately or severely affected by physical (erosion, compaction) and chemical degradation processes (salinity, acidification, loss of nutrients or pollution).

Soil produces food. Apricots in Les Alcusses valley, Eastern Spain, by Artemi Cerdà. Disributed by Imaggeo.

There is now an increasingly important consensus on soil’s value as a productive resource and basis of ecosystems. Increasing investment in research, education and awareness programs and sustainable development are some of the ways to halt land degradation and promote the restoration of degraded areas.

Moorland watershed land use (Exmoor National Park, UK), by María Burguet. Distributed by Imaggeo.

Current EU policy

Although agriculture and forests occupy 78% of the surface of the EU, currently there is not any clearly established soil policy in the EU, and only some member states have approved legislation. Though there are EU guidelines and policies on agriculture, water resources and pollution, lack of European legislation on soil does not ensure an adequate level of protection in Europe. However, the clear risk to achieve objectives on biodiversity and climate change led the EU to establish a Soil Thematic Strategy (2006) on soil protection (the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was withdrawn in May 2014). The Seventh Environment Action Programme recognises the progress made in the last decades, but still considers soil degradation risk as a serious problem, and that “unsustainable land use is consuming fertile soils, and soil degradation continues, resulting in impacts on global food security and the achievement of biodiversity targets”.

Grazing and stone landscape, by Artemi Cerdà. Distributed by Imaggeo.

Future challenges

The development of specific soil policies for prevention and remediation is considered essential for sustainable development plans. Future research should contribute to the identification of risks (water and wind erosion, floods, organic matter decline, soil compaction and chemical degradation) and restoration (reclamation and restoration of degraded soils and fire-affected areas). Specific policies should include:

  • the fight against deforestation and over exploitation of soil resources;
  • soil erosion control in arid and semiarid areas;
  • the coordination of soil maps;
  • inventories of soil risk areas.

Polish soil scientists in front of a soil profile, by Artemi Cerdà. Distributed by Imaggeo.

This is particularly prevalent in the context of climate change, the role played by soil as a resource for carbon sequestration, and mitigation of global warming should be attended. Given the integrative nature of soils, it is necessary to improve the transfer of knowledge through knowledge brokers with a soil background.

Soil-related educational activity, by Antonio Jordán. Distributed by Imaggeo.

For these reasons, member states are called to support and develop erosion control, carbon sequestration and restoration plans. In addition, promoting educational programs at all levels and emphasizing practical, down-to-earth examples is considered key for developing social awareness on soil problems.

Impact of livestock on soils, by Antonio Jordán. Distributed by Imaggeo.

Science and policy in the EGU

The EGU is developing its engagement with science for policy activities on the European scale in order to assist governments, organisations, companies and stakeholders to apply scientific knowledge to decision-making processes. For full information, you can access the EGU Policy site, where you can find information for scientists and policy workers about getting involved, upcoming events, resources, policy-related science and factsheets.

Hemicycle in Strasbourg, by European Parliament. Distributed by Flickr.

Antonio Jordán is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Seville and coordinator of the MED Soil Research Group. Antonio’s research focusses on rainfall-induced soil erosion processes, the effects of wildfires on soil properties and soil degradation in Mediterranean areas. He is an active members of the Soil System Sciences (SSS) Division of the European Geosciences Union (EGU), which coordinates the scientific programme on soil sciences.