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Brussels has ignored calls from businesses and campaign groups to set binding targets to prevent soil erosion and pollution, a latest indication of the EU’s increased hesitancy to follow through on environmental laws that are part of its green agenda.
Companies including Nestlé and Unilever, alongside NGOs such as the WWF, had called in March for ambitious legislation and specific targets for soil health arguing that it was crucial for the bloc to meet its green goals.
But a draft of the so-called soil health law, seen by the Financial Times, shows that no binding targets will be set.
Instead the European Commission will lay out a framework for member states to identify areas with poor soils and to regularly assess their state according to a list of indicators such as level of erosion, carbon and the presence of harmful chemicals.
Paul Polman, the former chief executive of Unilever who now campaigns on environmental issues, described the rules as “a key piece of legislation” but noted that healthy soils “were not well defined”. He hoped for “sharper targets” to be developed although, he added, they would be “very location- and crop-specific”.
The legislation is the first EU-wide effort to restore soils, with the commission estimating that about 60 to 70 per cent of the overall land is unhealthy, which increases the risk of droughts, wildfires and food insecurity. The European Environment Agency has estimated that 2.8mn sites in the EU have contaminated soils.
The amount of arable farming land available per person in the EU has halved in the past 50 years, the document said, in part because of its degradation.
The proposal will be presented next week as part of a wider set of measures targeting the agri-food sector and could be subject to change before the final announcement.
Despite laying out ambitious climate targets in 2021, the EU has struggled to do the same for biodiversity and environmental legislation.
Some member states including Italy and Poland and rightwing lawmakers have argued that the bloc should water down some of its green rules in order to shield industries from pressures stemming from the war in Ukraine, inflation and global competition from rivals like China.
The EU’s flagship law to restore damaged ecosystems has been rejected by three committees in the European parliament following a heated campaign led by the conservative European People’s party, the parliament’s largest group, which claims that the law is badly drafted and will cause farmers to go out of business.
In the draft proposal, the commission said that the annual cost of tackling contaminated soils was “highly uncertain” and could be nearly €2bn just to identify and investigate polluted sites.
The overall cost of implementing soil restoration policies would be between €28bn to €38bn each year, the document said, but the economic benefits were expected to double that.
The commission declined to comment on the draft.
For a long time the EU has had laws governing air and water quality but has never regulated soils.
An effort by Brussels to launch legislation to prevent soil contamination in 2010 failed owing to strong opposition from member states including Germany and France. The opposing countries said then that the commission was overreaching in its powers by attempting to govern soils.
Lillian Busse, vice-president of the German Environment Agency, said that she had hoped for “binding and more ambitious measures” than what was currently being drafted and that the proposal lacked basic monitoring requirements.
In the current proposal, member states will be left to govern when and how soil sampling is done.
Stientje van Veldhoven, vice-president of the NGO World Resources Institute, said that “good soil health is essential to reducing carbon emissions” and that “ambitious implementation” of the measures by EU countries would be “key”.