Farming News - Government taken to task on soil health

Government taken to task on soil health

11 Oct 2016
Frontdesk / Arable

The government has acknowledged that more needs to be done to protect the UK’s soils, which are under threat from erosion and degradation, but campaigners have said the official response to an inquiry into soil health still falls short..

Ministers have responded to a paper published by a committee of MPs in June which warned that failure to act on soil degradation will result in higher flood risks, major impacts on food production, and increasing carbon emissions.

Delivering the Committee’s first report of the 2016-17 session in June, Mary Greagh, Labour MP for Wakefield and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said, ”Soil is a Cinderella environmental issue. It doesn’t receive as much attention as air pollution, water quality or climate change. But, whether we realise it or not, society relies on healthy soil for the food we eat, for flood prevention, and for storing carbon. The Government says it wants our soil to be managed sustainably by 2030, but there is no evidence that it is putting in place the policies to make this happen.”

In 2014, scientists from the University of Sheffield warned that there were only around 100 harvests left in Britain’s soils, which are being depleted and are without legal protection. Earlier in the year, the European Commission had withdrawn plans for a Soils Directive that would have given the same protections to soils as exist for other non-renewable resources, such as clean air and water. However, the soils framework had been stuck at the draft stage for several years, held there by a blocking minority of national governments, including the UK. At the time, the NFU welcomed the withdrawal, stating that there was no need for legislation to protect soils, and highlighting its role in lobbying to derail the framework.

June findings

In its report in June, the EAC urged government to set out specific, measurable and time-limited plans to increase the amount of carbon retained in UK soils, warning that otherwise it would not meet plans ministers signed up to at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015. The EAC warned that relying on rules on soil health linked to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy would not be enough, as these are too weak, too loosely enforced, and focus only on preventing further damage to soil rather than encouraging restoration and improvement.

MPs on the committee also criticised the lack of soil monitoring in the UK, and expressed concern that “Defra's current ad hoc approach to conducting surveys of soil health is inadequate.” They said the government needs a national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health to ensure that there is adequate information available on the state of the nation's soil.

Government response

In its official response, delivered this week, government claimed that ministers are already taking action to improve soil health, but acknowledged that more needs to be done. It said the forthcoming 25 Year Environmental Plan (which has been delayed indefinitely along with the 25 Year Agricultural Strategy in light of June’s EU Referendum result) “should set out specific, measurable and time-limited actions” towards increasing soil organic matter.

However, responding to demands to create meaningful rules to improve soil health, above and beyond the EU’s cross-compliance measures, the government shied away, outlining recent changes to the EU’s Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) criteria, before stating that in light of the Brexit vote, “It is vital that any future agricultural policy framework  ensures  British  farming  remains  competitive  whilst protecting  and  enhancing the environment – including by not compromising soil health.”

EAC had also warned that maize growing for industrial uses such as anaerobic digestion is having an impact on soil health, and urged the government to introduce sustainability criteria for subsidy payments. The government response noted that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department is consulting on sustainability criteria and feedstock restrictions for renewables subsidy payments, but added “Our  proposal  is  not  to  ban  the  use  of  crops  completely,  but  rather  to  restrict the amount we pay for electricity and heat that is generated using crop-based feedstock.”

The government said it is “looking toward innovative methods of obtaining the data needed to maintain a strategic picture of soil health,” but disagreed with the EAC’s calls for more frequent monitoring to be undertaken and funded by government.

The response highlighted a plan being pioneered by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to use measurements taken by farmers looking to apply fertiliser or lime as a means of monitoring topsoil indicators on the national scale.

The full government response is available here.

Reacting to the government’s response on Tuesday, Georgia Farnworth, a policy officer at the Soil Association, said, “We’re pleased to see that the Government has acknowledged these issues and appears to be taking them seriously - this is a real success for Soil Association campaigning. But we’d now need to see a much more robust commitment to taking action to protect soils – on soil organic matter, the English and Scottish Governments need to move from good words to action.”

“At the COP21 climate summit, the Government signed up to an initiative to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year. In 2009, the Scottish Government established a Soils Framework to coordinate actions to promote good soil management. The framework’s vision is that soils are recognised as ‘a vital part of the Scottish economy, environment and heritage to be safeguarded for existing and future generations.’ The English and Scottish Governments must now set out specific, measureable and time-limited actions to make this happen.”