“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”

The majority of the world’s soils are not in good condition, and 33 per cent of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinisation, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils. These were the headline findings of the Status of the World’s Soil Resources, published last week by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to coincide with World Soil Day: the culmination of the International Year of Soils. This comprehensive report, the work of over 200 scientists from 60 countries, is the first major global assessment of soil and related issues.

Taken for granted?

Soil is not the most glamourous of public policy priorities; as José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General recognises in the Status report, “we have taken soils for granted for a long time”. Yet human life on earth is utterly dependent on soil  and the vital services it provides: underpinning food production, hosting a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity, providing carbon storage essential to mitigating climate change, and enhancing our resilience to flood and drought through water storage and filtration.

Given its importance, is soil given the policy prominence it deserves? The European Commission’s 2006 proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was held in limbo by European Parliament and Council for over seven years before finally being scrapped in 2013, and only a few Member States have specific legislation on soil protection.

In England, the most recent significant policy intervention on soil was in 2009, when the Labour Government published its Safeguarding our Soils strategy, setting out a vision that “by 2030, all England’s soils will be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully”, with “practical steps” pledged to “prevent further degradation of our soils, enhance, restore and ensure their resilience, and improve our understanding of the threats to soil and best practice in responding to them”. While the Coalition Government published a revised set of standards for farmers at the start of 2015, soil has not been a major theme in environmental policy in recent years.

Monitoring and measuring soil health

It is in this context that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has launched an inquiry into soil health in the UK. The start of the inquiry coincided by an event hosted last week by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and chaired by EAC Chair Huw Irranca-Davies MP, which sought to lay out some of the key scientific and policy issues associated with soil health, its monitoring and management.

The range of speakers, from soil scientists to economists, underlined the many ways in which soil provides vital services to society. These included commonly-cited factors such as agricultural productivity and carbon storage, but also the role of soils in mitigating urban flood risk and underpinning the public health benefits of green spaces. Journal of Ecology editor Professor Richard Bardgett highlighted the need to think of soils as a living ecosystem; for a soil to be healthy, it must have life, and where soils are degraded the complexity and diversity of these ecosystems is threatened.

A key issue raised throughout the event was the need to develop better indicators – physical, chemical and biological – for assessing soil health, and for these indicators to be used to develop more comprehensive monitoring programmes that give an accurate picture of the state of our soil. Appropriately, the question of how best to measure and monitor soil health is a key focus of the EAC inquiry, alongside understanding the potential consequences of failing to protect soil health, and assessing the measures currently in place. The inquiry is particularly timely given that Defra is currently developing two major strategies: a 25-year plan for the environment and a 25-year plan for agriculture. Given that these two plans are being developed separately, it seems essential to ensure that soil management is joined up, and given due prominence across each strategy.

Have your say

We will be responding to the EAC’s inquiry on soil health, which closes on the 14th January, and welcome views from members on the following key questions identified by the Committee:

  • How could soil health best be measured and monitored? How could the Government develop a strategy for tracking soil health?
  • What are the benefits that healthy soils can provide to society?
  • What are the consequences of failing to protect soil health for the environment, public health, food security, and other areas?
  • What measures are currently in place to ensure that good soil health is promoted? And what further measures should the Government and other organisations consider in order to secure soil health?
  • What role (if any) should soil health play in the Government’s upcoming 25 year plan for the natural environment?

If you would like to contribute to our inquiry response, please contact Jackie Caine, Policy Manager, at jackie@britishecologicalsociety.org.