Soil is a vital but endangered resource. We literally can’t live without it. Still, in the European Union, political squabbling has left soil largely unprotected and the consequences aren’t good.

 Xavier Dugnoille, an amateur gardener in Brussels, is tinkering with the dirt in his backyard. It’s rained a lot lately, and he’s concerned that the substratum, the layer of earth beneath the surface soil, is waterlogged.

“The most important thing is to have a good substratum, that gives the plants support and nutrients,” he says while pruning his lemon tree. “What is important with soil is that it gets the right amount of water.” He carefully searches for signs of earthworms, whose burrowing is essential for introducing oxygen into the earth.

For any gardener, soil is vital. Nothing is going to grow if you don’t take care of the dirt. Dugnoille understands this more than most. He works as a risk consultant, and part of his job in assessing the weaknesses of a property, which also means looking at soil quality and searching for possible contamination. In his own garden, he takes special care to ensure the ground stays healthy.

Just a few kilometers away at the European Union institutions, Dugnoille’s concern for his garden soil is writ large on a continental scale. It’s not just gardeners who are worried about soil quality, but also environmentalists.

Soil is essential for sustaining life on earth, helping plants and trees grow and protecting the water supply. It also acts as a natural carbon sink – storing climate-change causing CO2 emissions. In fact, it can store three times as much carbon as vegetation.

Degraded soil can’t perform these vital functions properly. And while it can take centuries to build up a centimeter of soil, it can be blown or washed away in a few seasons if not cared for properly. Yet, given the importance of soil, there is astonishingly little protection in Europe for this precious resource.