Soils for sustainability

The quality of rural soils is in decline. What are the long-term requirements for sustainable soil management?

Background and request for advice

Rural soils perform many vital functions. They are crucial for agriculture, forestry and nature, and are responsible for water quality, and water and carbon storage. But despite international policies and directives, soils suffer from acidification, eutrophication, desiccation, compaction and a heightened vulnerability. As a result, internationally agreed objectives for soil, nature conservation, water and climate are not being met. Intensive use and hazardous substances are jeopardising soil health, leading to lower agricultural yields and a poor to inadequate ecological quality in protected areas. Water quality also fails to meet the required standards, soils retain too little water and greenhouse gas emissions from soils are too high.

These problems are exacerbated by climate change: organic matter is decomposing more quickly, which diminishes soil fertility and water retention capacity, as well as the storage of carbon and greenhouse gases. And all that in the face of extreme weather conditions resulting from climate change, which means we need soils that can actually store more water and carbon.

In this advisory report, the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure examines what the government can do to restore the health of rural soils in the Netherlands and make them most suited to supporting the activities that directly depend on them (agriculture, forestry, nature conservation, water quality and storage, including drinking water, and carbon storage).

Advice

The Council observes that rural soils in the Netherlands are in a poor state. In its report Soils for sustainability the Council argues for a more vigorous soil policy. Maintaining soil health is the responsibility of society in general, but the government also has a key part to play. The Council makes six recommendations.

As land is scarce in the Netherlands, the Council advises the Dutch government to encourage multifunctional use of soils, such as combining agriculture with carbon storage and forestry with water storage. The guiding principle is that the health of the soil determines what uses can be made of the land – ‘function follows soil’. The Council advises enshrining this principle in the National Environment and Planning Strategy and believes the responsibility for translating it into practice should lie primarily with the provincial governments.

Because the existing policy instruments do not ensure that policy objectives are achieved, the Council advises revising them. Again, the guiding principle should be soil health. To inform this process the Council suggests setting up a monitoring and knowledge system to collect and share more information.

In addition, the Council advises amending existing legislation to make soil health a dominant steering principle, and gives examples for the government’s agricultural tenancy, fertiliser and fiscal policies.

Landowners and land users can be encouraged to adopt good practices through targeted remuneration packages, for example via the common agricultural policy or regional branding. Finally, the Council advises the government to encourage ecological restoration in forests and nature conservation areas, for example by providing appropriate grant aid.

With these recommendations the Council aims to put soil health on the political agenda. The details will have to be worked out in practice by all stakeholders, with the government as pacesetter.

Publication date

On 29 June 2020, the Rli published its advisory report 'Soils for sustainability', and presented it to the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.

More information

For more information about the advisory report, please contact project leader Nicole van Buren, at nicole.van.buren@rli.nl