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Assessing the UK’s soil policy

25 Aug 2015

Trevor Mansfield, Head of Policy at the Soil Association, on the value of soil for policy makers

In this International Year of Soils, there is growing recognition of the problems affecting our soils and the need to address those problems for our collective future. Certainly there is widespread concern amongst the soil science community and, I think, growing recognition of the problems amongst the farming community. But we do not yet have widespread public awareness of the value of soils or effective support amongst policy makers. We are publishing our Living Soil: a call to action report, which we hope will help to change that.

Take soil organic matter, for example. Observation and research tells us that organic matter is essential to food production, to water management and to maintaining levels of soil carbon. But how much organic matter is there in our soils and is it increasing or decreasing?  In seeking to answer this question in respect of UK soils I had to refer back to the 2007 Countryside Survey Report. The most recent strategic survey of national trends is based on sampling in approximately 1% of the 1km2 of Great Britain, carried out only three times in the last 37 years. It is a wonderful resource, but it is not enough. What it indicates is that soil organic matter is in long-term decline in UK arable and horticultural soils.

Meanwhile, policies are weak. The new cross-compliance standard to maintain soil organic matter (which farmers have to meet to receive farm subsidies), requires only that land managers observe pre-existing regulations restricting the burning of Heather, grass and arable stubbles and the ploughing up of semi-natural grasslands. It does not require any positive action.

We wrote to Liz Truss, Secretary of State at Defra, pointing out that a new five year term of office coinciding with International Year of Soils, was the ideal opportunity to deal with long term issues such as improving soil health. We recommended an aim to stop the decline in soil organic matter and set a target to increase it by 20% over 20 years. The Climate Change Committee reached a similar conclusion in their 2015 Annual Progress report to parliament. Of the six priority areas for climate change adaptation for agriculture, soil organic matter and fertility was their greatest concern, identifying the lack of policies as a particular issue.  Sadly, Ms Truss chose to ignore our recommendations. We hope that the Climate Change Committee will get a more positive response.

A similar picture emerges in other areas of potential soil policy, for example, maize cultivation in the UK.  As our Runaway Maize report shows, maize cultivation is strongly associated with soil degradation, contributing to water quality and flooding problems. Yet another of the new cross-compliance standards permits maize stubble as an allowable type of soil cover over winter, despite the clear evidence to the contrary. Under current forecasts, maize growing in the UK is set to expand to feed the growing demand for Anaerobic Digester feedstock. Whilst it is possible to grow maize to better practice standards (and we have published guidance alongside our report), it remains a risky crop to grow and this is a soil management problem that we can expect to get worse.

So whilst in many aspects of soil health we have the research, could it be that a lack of real-world monitoring data – both on the primary problems and the estimation of their impacts – is preventing stronger policy action? Soils are not served well by policy. We have EU Directives for Air and Water quality, but not for soils. For agriculture, the primary users of soils, we only have the cross-compliance standards. As indicated above, these are weak and do not provide a sufficient level of protection.

The Scottish Government have recently announced their intention to introduce compulsory soil testing on improved land. In time, this should provide an invaluable knowledge resource, leaving the rest of the UK behind. If we had routine monitoring across the UK, demonstrating how organic matter levels, water infiltration, erosion and compaction were linked to cropping patterns and management practices, this could create the imperative for policy change.

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