hand holding soil
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70% of European soil “degraded”; 84% of Portuguese grazing land “poor”

June to see new EU directive on how to protect “life source as important as air and water” (before it’s too late)

Poor land management, pollution, super-intensive agriculture, excessive urbanisation and accentuated soil erosion due to climate change have made 60-70% of European soil unhealthy”, according to the Soil Mission, financed by EU programme Horizon Europe – and Portugal “does not escape this reality”, experts have told Expresso.

The country doesn’t have data on how much land will cease to become productive, or has lost its water/ carbon cycles due to degradation, but specialists know that around 60% of the soils in this country have “little organic matter” within them. The country is losing 20 tons of soil per hectare per year, geographer Teresa Pinto Correia, connected to the Soil Mission, has told the paper.

Expresso’s text explains that in every handful of soil there can be “thousands of bacteria and fungi”, presence of which “signifies a living ecosystem”. Healthy soil is soil where rainwater permeates to feed aquifers. Healthy soil stores carbon, “creates climatic resilience and generates biodiversity”.

In Teresa Pinto Correia’s words, a healthy soil is “fundamental for all society”, but policies led by ‘those at the top’ have seen to it that healthy soils are fast disappearing.

“When we have super-intensive agriculture managed by investment funds, as happens in the Alentejo – based on a model of business that has access to land and dam water – the business product is extracted, the soil is degraded” and the investment funds then “go away”.

It is a reality that has been highlighted by environmental groups, civic groups, journalists even, to very little effect.

Law in drawer for eight years

According to specialists like Teresa Pinto Correia, “we are reducing, by a great deal, our capacity of self-subsistence” – our ability as a country to feed itself.

And while this tragedy has been ushered along, “there is no systemised information on the total number of intensive monocultures, and their accumulated environmental impacts”, warns Carlos Alexandre, president of the Portuguese Society of Soil Science.

There is not even any legislation to stop the damage, explains Expresso.

“In 2015 (that is, around the time PS Socialists came back into power after the country’s brief flirtation with PSD social democrats) the Environment Ministry presented a law (ProSolos – elaborated by the Portuguese Agency for the Environment), which was left in a drawer.

“The situation should change when the European Commission approves a new directive – The Soil Health Law, in 2023 – to be presented in June. Environmentalists, specialists and movements like Save Soil hope for a ‘progressive and ambitious’ law, that gives this resource the same statute of protection on a community level as air and water.

“The policies of the (Portuguese) Strategic Plan within the Common Agricultural Policy 2023-2027 see soil completely disregarded”, explains agricultural conservationist Mário de Carvalho, working out of Évora University.

Carvalho explains that farmers and producers in Portugal have no access to knowledge to apply to the protection of soil.

He tells Expresso that “in Portugal, the risk of soil erosion and nutrient loss is increased by the low level of biomass production and carbon retention associated with the way the land is tilled, demineralisation and high temperatures”.

With climate change underway, soils need to see their organic material increased, to allow water to infiltrate/ carbon to be sequestered/ avoid the risk of flooding (when it does rain) – and one way of achieving this is to maintain areas designated as RAN (agricultural reserve). But – and this is the big but – municipalities turn a blind eye to RAN in favour of “urban expansion”, he stresses – and thus “the best soils are under towns and cities, particularly in the area of Lisbon”.

Maria José Roxo, an investigator with Universidade Nova, takes up the narrative: “policies of soil protection have been almost non-existent”. Worse, there is no notion of how many hectares of RAN have been hijacked over the years, just as there is no data on the cumulative environmental impacts of soil occupation by intensive agriculture, or photo-voltaic panels, for example, she continues. There has been “never been a systemic approach to the relationship between these activities, the climate, the soil and biodiversity”.

“Uncultivated soils, and those covered by scrub continue to capture carbon and favour biodiversity”, this must“get into people’s heads”, say the specialists.

Ignoring the importance of healthy soil is “forgetting that the last phase of the process of degradation is desertification” and that “soil recovery is much more onerous, and takes much longer” than preserving it.

Expresso’s text ends with the stark explanation by Carlos Alexandre: “On average a centimetre of soil takes 100 years to be formed, which means its degradation results in an unredeemable loss for current generations”.

Bullet points

Bullet points provided by the article stress:

  • ¼ of agricultural soil is eroded, compacted, suffers from salinisation, has lost carbon; ⅔ are at risk of eutrophication, which affects water, food production and biodiversity
  • 25% of soils in southern Europe are at elevated risk of desertification. Dry eroded soil does not absorb water, causing floods in case of heavy rain
  • 2.8 million sites in the European Union are particularly contaminated, with risks to public health
  • €50 billion is the annual cost associated with the EU’s degraded soils
  • 84% of Portugal’s grazing land is classified as ‘poor’. (This puts protests by farmers in heritage areas threatened by mining into stark perspective).

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