There is a lack of knowledge about the effectiveness and efficiency of soil conservation policies in agriculture and there is a little understanding of how policy measures should be designed to encourage farmers to adopt soil conservation practices. This paper analyses institutional settings surrounding agricultural soil management in ten European countries based on the Institutions of Sustainability (IoS) framework. This framework considers the interdependencies between ecological and social systems, taking into account environmental conditions, farming practices impacting on soil conservation, different types of actors, policies, institutions and governance structures. The purpose of this paper is to describe the analytical framework and the methodology that all case studies are based on, present and discuss compared findings, outline implications for successful soil conservation policy and draw conclusions on the methodological approach. The case studies focused on the main soil degradation types occurring across Europe which are addressed by a broad range of mandatory and incentive policies. The findings highlight the following issues: (i) the need to design policies that target the locally most common soil threats and processes in the light of agricultural management; (ii) the need to take farming management constraints into consideration, (iii) the need for good communication and cooperation both between agricultural and environmental authorities as well as between governmental and non-governmental stakeholders; (iv) the necessary mix of mandatory and incentive instruments and (v) the need for data and monitoring systems allowing the evaluation of the effectiveness of policies and soil conservation practices. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.