Within the Horizon Europe programme to support R&D&I of the European Union for the years 2021-2027, the launch of five missions has been included to respond to the most important challenges facing Europe in the coming years. Among them is the initiative to build a common pact that contributes to improving the health of the Old Continent’s soils through actions that involve scientific research aspects as well as those linked to sustainability and social participation. The 2023 call for proposals for the mission A Soil Deal for Europe will close on 23 September.
This mission is part of the EU’s strategy to address key global challenges, in particular those related to Sustainable Development Goals 15 (terrestrial life and ecosystems), 13 (climate change), 2 (zero hunger), 3 (health and well-being) and 11 (sustainable cities and communities). It also contributes to the achievement of the European Green Deal targets on sustainable agriculture, climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity and zero pollution. It is also a flagship initiative related to the long-term vision for the EU’s rural areas.
Its main objective is to make at least 75% of all European soils healthy by 2030, as life on Earth depends on them. In the context of this mission, soil health is considered as its capacity to provide ecological functions for all forms of life. “Soil is the basis of our food systems, provides clean water and habitats for biodiversity, and contributes to climate resilience. It underpins our cultural and landscape heritage and is the basis of our economy and prosperity,” stresses Izaskun De Allende, senior consultant in the Social Innovation knowledge area.
The European Commission, however, estimates that 60-70% of EU soils are unhealthy. “This is particularly worrying as soil is a fragile resource that must be carefully managed and safeguarded for future generations. An inch of soil can take hundreds of years to form, but it can be lost in a single storm, industrial incident, or urban activity,” De Allende adds.
A three-phase financing plan
In this way, the mission aims to create 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards a Europe that, through sustainable and innovative management, exploitation and use processes, manages to recover, and maintain healthy soils. To this end, it will deploy a series of activities and tools for the exchange of experiences, and the joint creation of knowledge and research. It will also promote changes in the various drivers of soil health to reverse the trends that are leading to soil degradation.
The mission also has other priority objectives: reducing desertification; conserving soil carbon stocks; halting soil sealing and increasing the reuse of urban soils; reducing soil contamination and improving restoration; preventing erosion; improving soil structure to increase soil biodiversity; reducing the overall EU soil footprint; and improving soil literacy in society.
Key activities include the funding of an ambitious research and innovation programme with a strong social science component and multi-stakeholder approach, as well as raising public awareness and understanding of the vital importance of soils. This funding plan is divided into three phases: induction and pilot deployment phase (2021-2025); expansion and innovation phase (2024-2030); scalability and integration phase (2026-2030).
Zabala Innovation’s role in the EU Soil Mission
Zabala Innovation works as a partner in several projects that contribute to the deployment of this mission, with the aim of ensuring the participation of all stakeholders who share responsibilities, concerns and challenges related to soil health. The work of our Social Innovation area is to ensure that the research activities of these projects are developed in multidisciplinary collaboration and with the involvement of local, regional, and European stakeholders. The projects funded by the mission calls and in which Zabala Innovation is participating are InBestSoil and BIOServicES.
This project has a budget of over ¤5 million and involves 19 institutions from 10 countries. The project will seek to give economic value to the different ecosystem services provided by healthy soil, from fibre and food production to the preservation of cultural heritage. It will do so by providing data, evidence, tools, and models to assess how economic investment in soil health can contribute to the transition to a long-term resilient environment and sustainable soil use.
The project is based on six lighthouse and three living labs and provides nine study areas in four biogeographical regions of Europe (boreal, continental, Atlantic and Mediterranean), and different land uses (agriculture, forestry, urban and mining). The co-creation and co-design models (multi-stakeholder approach, responsible research and innovation and open science) that will be developed will focus on results that are widely accepted and scalable to other geographical areas with similar characteristics.
BIOservicES will identify the pressures affecting soil and the precursors of soil degradation. It will also carry out an economic valuation of the contribution of the organisms that inhabit it (viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, spiders, etc.) to the ecosystem services it provides. The project will generate new knowledge and indicators, as well as digital decision support models for designing climate resilient management and sustainable land use, exploitation, and management practices. The aim is to contribute to their monitoring, conservation, and restoration, and to maintain and promote the multiple ecosystem services in which the organisms are involved.
BIOserviceES will have lighthouses representing eight land uses in five biogeographic regions of Europe as central hubs for the co-creation and co-design of the proposed solutions, ensuring the implementation of the multi-stakeholder approach, responsible research and innovation and open science.
The 2023 EU Soil Mission Call for proposals
With €126 million distributed among nine different topics, the 2023 call of the mission A Soil Deal for Europe will close on 23 September. The topics cover different aspects of soil health, such as contamination, digital monitoring technologies, combating desertification, subsoil knowledge, sustainable horticultural practices, transferring soil knowledge to citizens and – in line with the main objective of the mission – supporting the creation of new living labs aimed at improving soil health or carbon sequestration.
The missions are a new strategy with which the European Commission aims to achieve bold and inspiring goals that have a major impact on society, to give a new role to R&D, combining it with new forms of collaboration and governance, and to encourage the participation of different stakeholders, including citizens. Beyond soil and food health, these are deployed in four other broad areas: cancer, climate change adaptation including social transformation, water and oceans, and smart and climate-neutral cities.
Zabala Innovation is increasingly committed to the missions. The opportunities for collaboration, learning, and impact presented by this new approach to work proposed by the European Commission are endless, but also overwhelming. All actors involved in any of the stages of the value chain must contribute knowledge and skills to bring the missions to fruition and ensure a dignified and sustainable future for all EU citizens.
The Social Innovation department at Zabala Innovation will continue to research and contribute to new forms of collaboration between different disciplines, which are necessary to generate results that will last into the future. At both InBestSoil and BIOservicES we will develop and implement co-creation and participatory methodologies so that the knowledge, ideas and perspectives of stakeholders are represented, and project results can be adopted and scaled more quickly. We will also ensure that we evaluate the results and impact that these measures generate, to develop resources that can contribute to strengthening the deployment of the mission on a Soil Pact for Europe.
To help achieve this, Zabala Innovation also has extensive experience in the exploitation of results in many European projects and with the cascade funding service, a European Commission funding mechanism that allows to distribute public funds in a more agile way, especially for start-ups and SMEs.