Soil as a governance challenge

Recent research, policy documents and initiatives have emphasised the importance of well-functioning soils: the International Year of Soils 2015, the EU Soil Thematic Strategy (STS), and the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) are just a few examples. At the same time, soil degradation remains a global challenge (IPBES 2018); effective governance structures for sustainable soil management are lacking. In the EU, the plans to adopt a Soil Framework Directive have failed. Research on soil governance is scarce (Juerges and Hansjürgens 2018). Meanwhile, soil is a challenge for governance in its own respect. The two main reasons for this are heterogeneity and multifunctionality.


Soils are a spatially heterogeneous, essentially non-renewable resource (strictly speaking: renewable over very long time frames). If soils are lost (e.g. due to erosion processes), their regeneration takes decades to centuries – thus, from the perspective of most societal actors, their loss is irreversible. Many different factors influence soils, so their spatial distribution follows complex patterns. Thus, the provision of and contribution to ecosystem services by soils is also spatially specific (Vogel et al. 2018).


Soils are complex systems; from the point of view of society, they are highly multifunctional, providing different types of ecosystem services (Bartkowski et al. 2018; Paul et al. 2021). The use of multifunctional systems usually involves trade-offs; not all soil-related ecosystem services can be had at once. Each management approach will enhance the provision of some ecosystem services and negatively influence the provision of others. Which trade-offs are deemed acceptable is determined by societal goals and their translation into soil context (Bartkowski et al. 2020).


Different ecosystem services and the different soil processes and components that are ‘responsible’ for their provision are also different from a property-rights perspective (Bartkowski et al. 2018). Thus, of course, they are considered in different ways by the relevant actors. For instance, the ‘main’ soil-related ecosystem service in agricultural landscapes – food – is obviously a private good. Soil biodiversity is on the other end of the spectrum, as it constitutes a public good with numerous positive externalities, such as gene pool or biodiversity’s contribution to ecosystem functioning. In between the two extremes there are numerous ‘grey cases’ of soil-related ecosystem services that are only partly considered by those who manage soils directly (i.e., mostly, farmers), at least partly constituting externalities.


Accordingly, soil management is influenced by multiple different actors with varying degrees of interactions with soils, with different interests and option spaces. The most important actor group is of course farmers – a very diverse group themselves. But for the sustainability of soil management, also farmers’ interactions with other actor groups are crucial: agricultural advisors, consumers, retailers, increasingly also industry. This diversity of the relevant actors further adds to the complexity that has to be taken into account in designing effective, efficient and legitimate soil governance instruments.

  • Bartkowski, B., Bartke, S., Helming, K., Paul, C., Techen, A.-K., Hansjürgens, B., 2020. Potential of the economic valuation of soil-based ecosystem services to inform sustainable soil management and policy. PeerJ 8, e8749. doi:10.7717/peerj.8749
  • Bartkowski, B., Hansjürgens, B., Möckel, S., Bartke, S., 2018. Institutional Economics of Agricultural Soil Ecosystem Services. Sustainability 10, 2447. doi:10.3390/su10072447
  • IPBES, 2018. The assessment report on land degradation and restoration. IPBES Secretariat, Bonn.
  • Juerges, N., Hansjürgens, B., 2018. Soil governance in the transition towards a sustainable bioeconomy – A review. Journal of Cleaner Production 170, 1628–1639. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.10.143
  • Paul, C., Kuhn, K., Steinhoff‐Knopp, B., Weißhuhn, P., Helming, K., 2021. Towards a standardisation of soil-related ecosystem service assessments. European Journal of Soil Science 72(4): 1543-1558. doi:10.1111/ejss.13022

  • Vogel, H.-J., Bartke, S., Daedlow, K., Helming, K., Kögel-Knabner, I., Lang, B., Rabot, E., Russell, D., Stößel, B., Weller, U., Wiesmeier, M., Wollschläger, U., 2018. A systemic approach for modeling soil functions. SOIL 4, 83–92. doi:10.5194/soil-4-83-2018