European agriculture is under threat as the quality of soil worsens, especially in eastern states. More than 16 per cent of the EU's land is affected by soil degradation, but in the accession countries more than a third is affected, according to the first Soil Atlas of Europe which was published recently.
The chief threats to soil identified by the atlas are erosion, degradation from the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, the loss of organic content, contamination from industry, the loss of biodiversity, salinity, the compacting of soil by agricultural vehicles, landslides and flooding. In southern Europe nearly 75 per cent of the soil has an organic matter content (a measure of fertility) so low that is a cause for concern. But even in England and Wales the percentage of soils classed as low in organic matter rose from 35 per cent to 42 per cent between 1980 and 1995 because of changes in farming practice.
The atlas is the first report to analyse all of Europe's soil. The study will form the basis of the Soil Framewirk Directive, expected by the end of the year which is intended to protect Europe's soil from further damage. But the real answer does not lie in the publication of a directive in the Official Journal, but changes in farming practice. Farmers need to be encouraged to use more composted organic material, but their willingness to do so will be affected by considerations of availability and price.