Soil — SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 18 Oct 2010 Published 25 Nov 2010
4 min read
This is an old version, kept for reference only.

Go to latest version
Topics: ,
Cover Image
Nearly all of the food and fibres used by humans are produced on soil. Soil is also essential for water and ecosystem health. It is second only to the oceans as a global carbon sink, with an important role in the potential slowing of climate change. Soil functions depend on a multitude of soil organisms which makes it an important part of our biodiversity. Nevertheless, soil in many parts of Europe is being over-exploited, degraded and irreversibly lost due to impacts from industrial activities and land use change, leading to soil sealing, contamination, erosion and loss of organic carbon. Due to these problems, legislation for the protection of soils has been proposed at EU level.



Soil is defined as the top layer of the earth's crust. It is composed of mineral particles, organic matter, water, air and living organisms — a non-renewable resource which performs many vital functions. Soil has a role as a habitat and gene pool; serves as a platform for human activities, landscape and heritage; and acts as a provider of raw materials. These functions are worthy of protection because of their socio-economic as well as environmental importance.

The soil resources of Europe are diverse, reflecting a combination of geology, climate, topography and land use developed over thousands of years. Northern European soils tend to have higher organic matter content than those in the south. Relatively young soils dominate central Europe. Poorly developed soils or soil with accumulations of calcium carbonate characterise the Mediterranean basin. The slow rates of soil formation mean that soil must be regarded as essentially non-renewable. The unsustainable human use and management of land is leading to increased soil degradation and a loss of a key resource that is fundamental to life on the planet.

Different EU policies for water, waste, chemicals, industrial pollution prevention, nature protection, pesticides and agriculture are contributing to soil protection. However, as these policies have other aims and other scopes of action, they are not sufficient to ensure an adequate level of protection for all soil in Europe. The prevention of soil degradation is also limited by the scarcity of data. In this context, the European Commission adopted a Soil Thematic Strategy (COM(2006) 231) and a proposal for a Soil Framework Directive (COM(2006) 232) on 22 September 2006 with the objective to protect soils across the EU.

Soil degradation: state, trends and impacts

  • Erosion: 105 million ha, or 16 % of Europe's total land area (excluding Russia), were estimated to be affected by water erosion in the 1990s. 42 million ha are affected by wind erosion.
  • Organic matter decline: the soils of EU-27 Member States store about 79 billion tonnes of carbon. The storage capacity of soil is sensitive to climatic conditions and there is a high risk that global warming will turn soils into a major source of greenhouse gases. Some 45 % of soils in Europe have a low or very low organic matter content (meaning 0–2 % organic carbon) and 45 % have a medium content (meaning 2–6 % organic carbon). This issue is found especially in southern European countries, as well as in parts of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Belgium.
  • Compaction: the use of heavy machinery in agriculture can induce soil compaction. It reduces the capacity of soil to store and conduct water, makes it less permeable for plant roots and increases the risk of soil loss by water erosion. Estimates of areas at risk of soil compaction vary. Some authors estimate 36 % of European subsoils as having high or very high susceptibility to compaction. Other sources report 32 % of soils being highly vulnerable and 18 % moderately affected.
  • Salinisation stands for the accumulation of salts and other substances from irrigation water and fertilizers which makes soils unsuitable for plant growth. It affects approximatly 3.8 million ha in Europe. The main driver is the inappropriate management of irrigated agricultural land.
  • Landslides occur more frequently in areas with: highly erodible soils or clay-based sub-soils; steep slopes; intense and abundant precipitation; or abandoned terraces, such as the Alpine and Mediterranean regions. Until now there are no data on the total area affected in the EU.
  • Contamination: due to more than 200 years of industrialisation, soil contamination is a wide-spread problem in Europe. The most frequent contaminants are heavy metals and mineral oil. The number of sites where potentially polluting activities have taken place now stands at approximately 3 million.
  • Sealing occurs when agricultural or other non-developed land is built on. It normally includes the removal of top soil layers and leads to the loss of important soil functions, such as food production or water storage. On average, built-up and other man-made areas take up around 4 % of the total area in EEA countries (data exclude Greece, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), but not all of this is actually sealed. In the decade 1990–2000 the sealed area in the EU-15 increased by 6 %, and productive soil continues to be lost to urban sprawl and transport infrastructures.
  • Biodiversity decline: soil biodiversity is built on a great variety of soil organisms from bacteria to mammals that shape the metabolic capacity of the ecosystem and many other functions of soils. Soil biodiversity is affected by all of the degradation processes listed above, and all driving forces mentioned apply (equally) to the loss of soil biodiversity.

Related content

Figures used

News and articles

Related briefings

Related publications

European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100