Evaluation support study on the impact of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) on sustainable management of soil

When people want to gain time, they commission studies, research, and analysis. A lot depends on who carries out these activities. Nevertheless, the results can be useful in order to understand if and how to proceed. The report on the Evaluation of the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the sustainable management of soil acquires particular importance, in this period of discussion of the CAP, both for the CAP itself and for the development of a new European strategy for the soil.

Who was behind this study? The Agriculture DG of the European Commission, directly. Who was it entrusted to? To the Alliance Environment European Economic Interest Group: over 20 people worked on the analysis and editing. The study considers the various regulations of the CAP since 2014 and carried out assessments in farming areas of 10 EU Member States.

In short, the report seems to us to have a solid scientific base and to have chosen the elements for evaluation well. The final result is quite clear: despite their potential, the tools of the CAP have not supported or protected the productivity and fertility of the soil. The report runs to almost 150 pages: here are a few of its typical conclusions.

Only a few of the activities necessary for soil protection are enforced at EU level. Furthermore, key activities, such as controlled traffic, no/reduced/late tillage, diversified crop rotation and compost application, as well as the limitation of plot size are in no cases enforced by the EU regulation; i.e. vulnerable areas in terms of soil quality (or susceptibility to erosion) do not benefit from specific provisions set at EU level.

Looking at the decisions by Member States and managing authorities to implement instruments and measures fostering activities for sustainable soil management, the study found that soil quality was given less importance than other environmental concerns (i.e. biodiversity and water, which benefit from legally binding EU objectives and dedicated institutions or services). This level of priority given to addressing soil quality seems to result mostly from the level of awareness among national and local authorities of the threats to soil and of their possible consequences. The absence of decrease in the growth nitrogen balance since 2010 suggests that the recent implementation of the CAP did not succeed in providing an additional contribution to the effect that previous policies had on reducing the use of fertilisers. The impact of the CAP measures and instruments on soil compaction and salinisation remains very limited, as no instrument clearly addressed those issues.

Looking at storms, droughts, fires and soil sealing as other factors that may impact soil quality, it can be observed that those events may impact very large areas and may thus very significantly impact soil quality in comparison to the impact that can be expected from the CAP. It is also important to note that degraded and bare soils are more affected by storms and droughts than sustainably managed soils, and that the frequency of extreme natural events is expected to increase in the future: this suggests the CAP measures and instruments need to scale up to counterweight, as much as possible, the effects of these events.

The needs to limit erosion, to increase carbon content in mineral soils, to protect grasslands and to ensure the maintenance of their carbon content are explicitly addressed in the CAP framework. However, the rules set at EU level are not very ambitious, and the CAP contribution to mitigate those soil threats thus depend on implementation choices taken at the level of Member States or regions.