A farmer plows a field in the Sarthe, in March 2021. JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP
Between 60% and 70% of soils in the European Union (EU) are in poor health, according to a 2020 analysis. And yet, despite this damning finding, governments are not using the tools at their disposal, especially in the framework of the common agricultural policy (CAP), in an attempt to improve their condition. While Brussels has just presented a bill on soil monitoring, which will be debated in the coming months, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) slams the Commission and the Member States for their “lack of ambition” and their failure to deal with this crucial issue, in a report published on Monday 10 July.
Soil ecosystems are home to 25% of biodiversity, regulate water and carbon cycles and are essential for food production. They are also the target of many pressures: pollution, erosion, salinization, settlements or poor management of nutrients and effluents. “The starting point of this report is quite gloomy: two-thirds of soils are in bad shape even though they are the basis of life,” underlines Eva Lindström, Court auditor in charge of this report. The CAP and the directive on nitrates provide levers to improve their state, but, over the period that we studied (2014-2022), neither the Commission nor the States have made sufficient use of them. »
The report first denounces the ineffectiveness of the principle of environmental conditionality. To benefit from the CAP, farmers must comply with certain standards – in total, 85% of Europe’s useful agricultural area is covered by these conditionalities. But, if the main rules set at the European level are mandatory, the way in which the countries apply them makes them ineffective. “Requirements set at Member State level very often call for only limited modification of existing agricultural practices, or even none at all,” observes the CEC.
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Too many exemptions
One of the conditions for benefiting from financing is, for example, to fight against soil erosion. In France, this standard has been translated into the fact of not plowing when the soil is flooded or on land with a slope of more than 10% in winter. “These are criteria that correspond to very specific situations and for limited periods, deciphers Aurélie Catallo, director of the Agricultural and Food Policies program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. Nearly 90% of the practices that can aggravate soil erosion are not taken into account. The effects of conditionality on the sustainable management of soils and effluents are also very rarely assessed.
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