The European Union has introduced its inaugural soil legislation, aimed at reversing the effects of intensive farming and mitigating global warming, marking a first in the continent’s history.

Despite heavy opposition to the proposed laws on nature restoration and pesticide restrictions, the European Commission unveiled plans in Brussels on Wednesday to rejuvenate degraded soils. Studies suggest this could potentially sequester carbon from the atmosphere and ensure sustainable food production.

Under the new law, member states would oversee soil health, fertilizer usage, and erosion, but it lacks specific national-level objectives for improving soil quality. This has drawn disapproval from the European agri-food industry, which urged for a more aggressive approach to address the “concerning” condition of soils.

In an interview with the Guardian, the EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, stated that the ultimate goal was for Europe to have healthy soils by 2050. Over 60% of the EU’s soils are currently considered unhealthy.

However, the new law does not set legally binding targets. Sinkevičius commented that the legislation paves the way for additional income opportunities for farmers and landowners through a voluntary certification scheme for soil health, and it aligns well with carbon farming and payments for ecosystem services.

Land use is the second major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions following fossil fuels, and a significant cause of biodiversity loss, with over-fertilization and peatland degradation exacerbating both crises. Recent research suggested that minor enhancements to agricultural soils globally might store sufficient carbon to keep the world within 1.5C of global heating.

One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B), the primary representative of the European agri-food industry in Brussels, opined that the proposals were not comprehensive enough. “The EU needs to intensify efforts to combat the trend of deteriorating soil health in Europe,” said Stefania Avanzini, OP2B’s director, in a statement.

The organization is urging EU member states and the European Parliament to elevate the proposal’s ambition. Avanzini acknowledged the commission’s recognition of agriculture’s central role in soil management but expressed disappointment over the lack of commitment to sustainable practices and necessary funding for transitioning to regenerative agriculture on a large scale.

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