In Focus

A bustling ecosystem

Protecting soils

Christiane Weihe

It is right underneath our feet, but we give it little thought. And so it is heavily polluted, for example with pesticides, or it has become imperviously sealed. A staggering 60 per cent of EU soils are now in an unhealthy state. Yet we need soil, and desperately so, for agriculture and forestry as well as for storing water and cooling the air. Regulation at the EU level and the amendment of the German Soil Protection Act (Bundes-Bodenschutzgesetz, BBodSchG) are intended to improve the way we treat our soils. The Oeko-Institut is also contributing its expertise to the question of how this can be achieved.

Our soils are absolutely bustling with living organisms. A single teaspoon of soil holds 120,000 fungi and one million bacteria. Earthworms, isopods and insect larvae live in the soil; millions of individuals of soil fauna can be found underneath one square metre of soil surface. All these organisms play an important role for the soils’ natural functions: They decompose organic plant waste and thus release nutrients, break down pollutants and play an essential role in enabling soil water retention. "However, we still do not know nearly enough about soil life. Most of this highly complex system has not yet been sufficiently studied. Our knowledge about how to protect the soil ecology and prevent soil degradation is similarly insufficient," says Dr Laura von Vittorelli from the Oeko-Institut.

However, what we do know is that we are not careful enough in the way we treat our soils: They are sealed to carry buildings and infrastructure, their cultivation is often unsustainable, they are polluted by pesticides and damaged by heavy agricultural machinery. Pollutants or microplastics from tyre abrasion, for example, also do damage, as does deforestation. "All this is all the more incomprehensible because the strong competition for available land underscores that we really do need the soil. We need it to grow food and other organic raw materials, for example. We also need it to provide ecosystem services such as cooling the ground or retaining water."

Protecting soils

Soils can be used much more sustainably than is the case today, for example through organic cultivation practices, which are associated with significantly lower environmental impacts, and organic livestock husbandry, which reduces ammonia emissions. "Valuable measures include the rewetting of peatlands and wetlands in order to bind more carbon in the soil, or the establishment of species-rich, structurally rich and climate-resilient forests." Reduced new land consumption naturally has the same positive effect on soils. (For more details see "28,000 football fields. Reducing land consumption – sparing lands" on page 6.) "In Germany, however, soil and land protection are treated separately in law. When it comes to soil, we therefore have to look at the Soil Protection Act and the Soil Protection Ordinance," says the Oeko-Institut scientist. The statutory soil protection regime is intended to safeguard or restore soil functions, but has so far focused mainly on legacy pollution, i.e. contaminated sites. "Moreover, there are other ordinances that have a bearing on soil protection, such as provisions in construction law, regional planning law and the Nature Conservation Act. So far, the Soil Protection Act has followed the principle of subsidiarity: if a matter is regulated by other legislation, it does not apply. As a result, soil protection as a regulatory matter is very much scattered across different pieces of legislation." In addition, there are different specifications and pilot projects at the regional state (Länder) level. "So far this is quite a patchwork."

The Oeko-Institut’s scientists are now supporting the Federal Ministry for the Environment and the German Environment Agency in amending the soil protection regime. The project entitled “Stärkung des Bodenschutzes und der Altlastensanierung durch Überarbeitung des Bodenschutzrechts” (Strengthening soil protection and remediation of contaminated sites by revising soil protection legislation) is led by the Ecologic Institute and carried out together with the Schnittstelle Boden engineering consultancy. "We analyse how soil protection has been regulated to date and what improvements could be made," says von Vittorelli. "To this end, we have already produced seven legal background papers. In doing so, we also look at the interfaces with other regulations of relevance to soil protection, such as legislation governing the use of chemicals or the agricultural sector."

One analysis, for example, deals with subsidiarity and proposes to adjust the application of this principle as it weakens soil protection. "This clause could be deleted so that soil protection legislation and the planned advancements can be utilised in the field and applied by the competent authorities. After all, other environmental laws such as the Nature Conservation Act also do without applying that principle." Another background paper addresses the specific criteria governing soil protection. So far, this has been defined such that the soils’ functions are to be protected, including with a view to the utilisation of soils. "The aim so far is to protect soil function but not the soil as a medium in itself. This gap should be closed," says the scientist. "From our point of view, it would be prudent to emphasise the fundamental protection of soils, to add further functions such as the sequestration of greenhouse gases and to add further protection objectives, as necessary. An example would be the achievement of good conservation status for soils by a specific year."

Pollutant inputs are a key factor when it comes to burdens on soils. The scientists are also addressing that topic. "From our point of view, it is essential to limit inputs of substances that can harm the soil. Similar to water law, one could, for example, include in the soil protection regime priority substances, such as those listed in Annex XIV of the European Chemicals Regulation REACH." Moreover, it would be important to continuously review the list of restricted substances and to expand it as necessary. "The legislative process is almost as complex as soil ecology itself," says Laura von Vittorelli. "Sometimes different soil types are located very close to each other. And it takes a lot of effort to survey their respective condition. This makes it difficult to set out overarching regulations."

And what does Europe do?

There is also some movement on soil protection at the European level. So far, no corresponding law has been enacted there; this failed in part due to resistance by the prior German Federal Government. "Now a new draft is available. It is the result of the Euro­pean Commission's soil strategy, which aims to ensure that all soil ecosystems in the EU are healthy by 2050," says the Oeko-Institut’s law professional. That is a daunting task, considering that this is currently the case for at most 40 per cent of the EU’s soils.


The law professional Dr Laura von Vittorelli has been working in the Environmental Law & Governance Division at the Oeko-Institut since 2021. Her focus is on national and European water law, biodiversity conservation and national, European and international energy and environmental law.