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EU proposes measures to protect key natural resources

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The European Commission has adopted a package of measures for the sustainable use of key natural resources.

  • The new measures involve the protection and restoration of soils, boosting technological innovation and reducing food and textile waste.
  • They are intended to bring long-term economic, social, health and environmental benefits to everyone. 
  • By ensuring more resilient natural assets, the new rules in particular support people living directly from land and nature.

The package is intended to strengthen the resilience of EU food systems and farming, supporting people living directly from land and nature. They are expected to contribute to prosperous rural areas, food security, a resilient and thriving bioeconomy, put the EU at the forefront of innovation and development and help reverse biodiversity loss and prepare for the consequences of climate change. The proposals will now be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council in the ordinary legislative procedure.

Soil monitoring law

Currently, 60-70% of soils in the bloc are unhealthy, with 1 billion tonnes of soil washed away every year due to erosion, which means that the remaining fertile top layer is disappearing quickly. Costs associated with soil degradation are estimated at over €50 billion per year. 

The EU is proposing its first-ever legislation that would provide a harmonised definition of soil health, put in place a comprehensive and coherent monitoring framework and foster sustainable soil management and remediation of contaminated sites. It brings several sources of soil data under one roof, combining sampling data from the EU’s Land Use and Coverage Area frame Survey (LUCAS) with satellite data from Copernicus, and national and private data. The ultimate goal is to achieve healthy EU soils by 2050, in line with the EU Zero Pollution ambition.

The Commission said that soil data will help farmers and other landowners implement the most appropriate treatment methods and help them increase soil fertility and yields, while minimising water and nutrient consumption. In addition, this data will improve our understanding of trends in droughts, water retention and erosion, strengthening disaster prevention and management. 

It could provide additional income opportunities for farmers and land managers, who can be rewarded for carbon farming, receive payments for ecosystem services or for increasing the value of healthy soils and food produced on them. The proposal does not impose any direct obligations on landowners and land managers, including farmers.

Member States will define positive and negative practices for soil management. They will also define regeneration measures to bring degraded soils back to a healthy condition, based on national soil health assessments, which will also inform other EU policies, such as LULUCF, CAP and water management.

The proposal also requests that Member States address unacceptable risks for human health and the environment due to soil contamination, guided by the polluter pays principle. They will need to identify, investigate, assess and clean up contaminated sites.

More resilient food systems with New Genomic Techniques

New technologies, such as New Genomic Techniques (NGT), can help boost resilience for both agriculture and forested land and protect harvests from the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. NGT allow the development of improved plant varieties that are climate resilient, pest resistant, that require fewer fertilisers and pesticides and can ensure higher yields, helping to cut the use and risk of chemical pesticides in half, and reducing the EUs dependency on agricultural imports.

In most cases, these new techniques lead to more targeted, precise, and faster changes than conventional techniques, while growing a crop that is the same as what could have been achieved with classic techniques such as seed selection and crossbreeding.

The Commission’s proposal will:

  • establish two categories of plants obtained by NGTs: NGT plants comparable to naturally occurring or conventional plants, and NGT plants with more complex modifications;
  • both categories will be subject to different requirements to reach the market, taking into account their different characteristics and risk profiles. The plants from the first category will need to be notified, while those from the second category will go through the more extensive process of the GMO directive;
  • give incentives to steer the development of plants towards more sustainability;
  • ensure transparency about all NGT plants on the EU market, for example through labelling of seeds;
  • offer robust monitoring of economic, environmental and social impacts of NGT products.

More sustainable and diverse Plant and Forest Reproductive Materials

The European seed sector is the largest exporter in the global seed market, with a share of 20%, an estimated value of €7-10 billion and 7,000 companies – mostly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This proposal is intended to update and simplify the current rules, some of which are more than 50 years old.

The Commission said the new measure will increase the diversity and quality of seeds, cuttings, and other plant reproductive material (PRM). It will guarantee stable yields by future-proofing plant varieties through sustainability testing, such as disease resistance.

Seeds will also be better adapted to the pressures of climate change and help preserve the genetic diversity of cultivated crops and contribute to ensuring food security. The proposal will cut red tape and increase efficiency and efficacy of the registration and certification systems.

For the Forest reproductive materials, the Commission said it will ensure that the right tree is planted at the right place so that forests are better adapted to climate change. Tree breeding allows for speeding up climate change adaptation of forests, ensuring their continued productivity in the future.

Reducing food waste…

Nearly 59 million tonnes of food, or 131 kilogrammes per inhabitant, are wasted in the EU each year with an estimated market value of €132 billion. Over half of food waste is generated by households, followed by the processing and manufacturing sector (20%). Fighting food waste is a triple win: it saves food for human consumption and thereby contributes to food security. It helps companies and consumers save money, and it lowers the environmental impact of food production and consumption.

The Commission proposed that, by 2030, Member States reduce food waste by 10%, in processing and manufacturing, and by 30%, jointly at retail and consumption – which includes restaurants, food services and households. Orla Butler, EEB campaigner, noted that the targets should extend beyond these areas and encompass primary production too.

“The EU must establish and attain comprehensive food waste reduction targets of 50% across the entire supply chain, from farm to fork,” she added. “Anything less than this puts the EU at risk of falling short of its climate goals, international commitments and citizens’ demands.” 

…and textile waste

Textile waste is also included in the package, as 78% of it is not separately collected by consumers and ends up in mixed household waste, destined to be incinerated or landfilled. The Commission wants to make producers responsible for the full lifecycle of textile products and to support the sustainable management of textile waste across the EU. 

This initiative will accelerate the development of the separate collection, sorting, reuse and recycling sector for textiles in the EU, in line with the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. Increasing the availability of used textiles is expected to create local jobs and save money for consumers in the EU and beyond while alleviating the impacts of textile production on natural resources.

This will be achieved by the introduction of mandatory and harmonised Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles in all EU Member States. EPR schemes have been successful in improving the management of waste from several products, such as packaging, batteries and electric and electronic equipment.

Producers will cover the costs of management of textile waste, which will also give them incentives to reduce waste and increase the circularity of textile products – designing better products from the start. How much producers will pay to the EPR scheme will be adjusted based on the environmental performance of textiles, a principle known as ‘eco-modulation’.

Common EU extended producer responsibility rules will also make it easier for Member States to implement the requirement to collect textiles separately from 2025, in line with current legislation. The producers’ contributions will finance investments into separate collection, sorting, re-use and recycling capacities. 

Emily Macintosh, EEB senior policy officer for textiles, said: “The EU has committed to stopping fast fashion. Now it is time for a truly transformative waste policy that sets appropriate fees on companies. We cannot give brands a free pass to keep overproducing low-quality products designed for short lifespans and expect to recycle ever-increasing amounts of textile waste.” 

SGV Take:

The EU is pressing ahead with a series of innovative measures that are showing commitment to its climate and biodiversity goals. There is still division in Bruxelles, as seen by the Conservative backlash against the Nature Restoration Law, but the bloc seems more ambitious than some of its competing markets.

The new measures are likely to affect several companies in the food and agriculture space, the fashion sector, forestry and any industry with a direct link to land use. While the measures are yet to be approved, businesses should familiarise themselves with the proposed requirements to ensure they are ready once they are imposed.

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