Soil health remains a ‘Cinderella’ subject, relative to air and water quality, as policy makers strive to legislate for sustainable farming systems, according to one expert.

Pieter-Jan Schon, the director of Environment and Marine Sciences at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), soil health has been identified as a key priority by many organisations around the world, including the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

He said that problems have arisen because of the wide range of terms used to define what soil health really means.

AFBI's Pieter-Jan Schön
AFBI’s Pieter-Jan Schon

Speaking at the AFBI Soil Health Conference in Northern Ireland this week, Schon said: “This reflects the fact that so little is known about the composition of soils and how they actually perform in delivering food security, environmental sustainability and biodiversity.

“A number of global soil health initiatives have been introduced over recent years.

“For example, the link between climate change mitigation and soil carbon content was identified as part of the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.”

He also highlighted that EU research suggests over 60% of European soils are unhealthy.

This scientific evidence shows that soils are further degrading due to unsustainable management of the land, sealing, contamination and overexploitation, combined with the impact from climate change and extreme weather events.

Research also indicates that degraded soils reduce the provision of ecosystem services such as food, feed, fibre, timbre, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, pest control and water regulation.

The loss of these essential soil ecosystem services costs the EU at least €50 billion annually Pieter-Jan Schon highlighted.

“If soil health is to be actively addressed then we need legislation that contains actual targets.

“On that basis, relevant enforcement measures can be put in place. In addition we need to see the implementation of relevant education initiatives and public awareness campaigns, targeting both farmers and the general public.

“We must achieve behavioural change at farm level, where soil management practices are concerned,” he warned.

But in his opinion none of this will happen until a range of health and management indicators have been developed.

According to Schon this work is in progress and underlined by the commitment of the EU to introduce a Soil Monitoring Directive.

He believes this commitment is a step in the right direction, from a  soil health perspective.

Schon said: “The new soil monitoring law provides a legal framework to help achieve healthy soils across the EU by 2050″.