The Mission Soil: A Major Initiative to Protect and Restore European Soils

11 March 2024 - // Opinions
Kerstin Rosenow
Head of Unit ‘Research & Innovation’ in Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission

Life on Earth depends on healthy soils, a major challenge that our society faces today.

In 2021, the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission (DG AGRI) received the rewarding task to manage the newly launched Horizon Europe Mission ‘A Soil Deal for Europe’. The missions are a novel instrument under the Horizon Europe research and innovation program for the years 2021-2027.

Soil health was considered one of the five major challenges that our society faces today, which deserved a dedicated instrument, high financial commitment, and a new type of action: the EU Mission Soil. The EU’s past investment in soil research amounts to 1 billion Euros over the last 40 years. A comparable amount is planned to be invested in just 7 years of the Mission Soil to enable and accelerate soil health protection and restoration.

Soil is not only the foundation of our food systems, but it provides also clean water and habitats for biodiversity while contributing to climate resilience. It is part of our cultural heritage and landscapes, a key component of our economy and prosperity. At the same time, soil is a fragile resource that needs to be carefully managed and safeguarded for future generations. One centimeter of topsoil can take hundreds of years to form but can be lost in just a single rainstorm or industrial incident.

According to the current evidence, 61% of EU soils are unhealthy. There are around 2.8 million potentially contaminated sites which poses a serious threat to human health. Costs related to soil degradation are estimated at an incredible 50 billion euros a year. Those alerting figures triggered the launching of the Mission Soil.

But soil health is not only a challenge for Europe, it is a global challenge that requires international cooperation, also in view of the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Our management role in the Mission Soil requires that we develop activities beyond the agricultural, forestry, and rural lands and beyond our usual stakeholders. In fact, the Mission Soil scope is much broader, it covers all types of lands and soil health issues, it also targets urban areas, industrial contamination, and soil sealing and intends to reach out to citizens, schools, municipalities, regions, and businesses, being also active on the international scene. We adapted our way of working to the ambition of the Mission Soil.

Through the first three Horizon Europe work programs (2021 to 2023) around 300 million Euro have been already allocated to R&I projects addressing a variety of topics related to soil health. 29 projects have already started and 19 more are to be launched soon.

The Mission Soil main instrument is the experimentation and demonstration sites, that target the establishment of 100 living labs and lighthouses across Europe that will lead the transition towards healthy soils by 2030. The living labs are tools for bottom-up research and innovation: in a living lab, experimentation happens in real-life conditions, operating with end-users.

This is key to closing the knowledge-practice divide and bringing innovation to the ground. Living labs co-develop innovations, use the soil health monitoring framework to assess the impacts of these innovations and of their practices on soil health and ecosystems and contribute to the testing and validation of monitoring techniques and approaches, helping the development of indicators. They will also be ideal places for citizen engagement and soil literacy improvement activities and practices.

We have opened the first application for Living Labs in 2023 and it was a huge success. They will start their activities in 2024: we are excited to receive their first results.

Beside Living Labs and Lighthouses, the Mission Soil has also significantly enlarged the R&I for soil health. The Mission Soil is also active in the development of a harmonized soil monitoring framework at the EU level in collaboration with the European Commission Joint Research Centre. In 2023, the EU Soil Observatory (EUSO) Dashboard was launched.

The Soil Health Dashboard is an open interactive platform that provides an assessment of the state of soil health in the EU, expressed through 17 key indicators. It is a first step; more indicators will be added and will be regularly updated according to the availability of new data over time. This work is complemented by at least five Mission Soil-funded projects that contribute to the better monitoring of soil health, for example, through the development of new sets of indicators, the use of artificial intelligence (AI), and new earth observation techniques.

Awareness raising on soil health issues, activation of citizens, territorial actors, businesses, and public authorities for soil health is key to improving soil health. Since its beginning in 2021, Mission Soil has been present in almost 400 events at national, European, and international levels, and in November 2023, the first European Mission Soil Week was organized.

In fact, everyone, being an individual citizen and a legal entity, can voice their support, gain visibility, and access to Mission-led knowledge, and get involved in Mission activities by signing the Mission Soil Manifesto, which to date counts with 2.600 signatories, including almost 400 legal entities. We hope that many of you will join the vibrant community that cares for soil health! Anyone can sign the Manifesto.

To gather and make easily accessible all those information, funding opportunities, actions, and projects, in 2023 we have launched the Mission Soil Platform EU Missions Soil Deal for Europe | Mission Soil Platform.

We hope that on that platform anyone can find relevant information that will leverage actions for soil health. We count on you!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not (necessarily) reflect REVOLVE's editorial stance.
Kerstin Rosenow
Head of Unit ‘Research & Innovation’ in Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission

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