The Soil Health Inquiry – clearer than mud

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

On 2 December the Environmental Audit Committee opened an inquiry into soil health. The aim of the inquiry is to ascertain the importance of healthy soil to society, how to measure and monitor soil health and what actions could be taken to maintain or improve soil health.

The British Ecological Society contributed evidence to the inquiry as did the National Trust; Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH); the Soil Association, the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast; Soil First Farming and Newcastle University and a further 59 organisations and individuals.

With their distinct remits it is unsurprising that these organisations provided documents that each had their own “flavour”, with slightly different priorities and approaches to the questions at hand.

For example, Newcastle University provided a detailed overview of some of the more academic background to soil health and monitoring such as definitions, methodological considerations and an overview of existing strategies.

Soil First Farming came from the perspective of farmers, pointing out that there are farmers who voluntarily put soil health at the heart of their business but that there are others who have different priorities (such as minimising costs) who may resist enforced changes to their management practices.

The Soil Association took a different approach entirely and highlighted three priority issues (the need to increase soil organic matter, restoration of peatlands and fens, the problems posed by growing maize) and the actions required to tackle them.

Drawing on the expertise of a number of BES members as well as an in-depth review of the literature, the BES response was very thorough, including a detailed overview of potential indicators and suggestions for how Government could develop a strategy for the future.

Despite the differences between these documents, there appears to be a great deal of consensus. We have reviewed some of the above submissions and pulled out a few of the key ideas that emerged for each of the inquiry questions.

How could soil health best be measured and monitored?

A reliable measure of soil health can only be obtained by measuring physical (e.g. structure), chemical (e.g. pH) and biological (e.g. earthworms) indicators.  Monitoring should take into account spatial and temporal scales and include all land types.

What are the benefits that healthy soils can provide to society? 

Soil is fundamental to life (at least non-marine life). Food security depends on healthy soil as does access to clean water. Soil regulates nutrient cycling and atmospheric composition including carbon and is therefore important in terms of global change dynamics. Soil is home to a wide biodiversity which supports aboveground biota.

What are the consequences of failing to protect soil health for the environment, public health, food security, and other areas? 

Ultimately, poor soil health will lead to an inability to provide sufficient food and clean water as well as further degradation of the atmosphere and biodiversity. Poor soil quality leads to soil erosion which leads to silting of lakes and streams with devastating consequences for organisms in those environments. Poor nutrient content of soil will necessitate increased chemical inputs on agricultural land. Loss of organic matter also reduces the ability of soil to absorb and hold water contributing to flood risk.

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?

The consensus view is that existing legislation, in so far as it stands, is inadequate. Whilst a strategy for safeguarding soil was developed by Defra in 2009 and Defra’s white paper “The Natural Choice” (2011) included a goal that by 2030 all soils in England should be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully, there is little legislation that backs this up. There are some requirements within the CAP that promote positive action for soils but these are limited to agricultural soils and according to Soil First Farming, uptake is minimal.  As CEH points out, these regulations only relate to agricultural soils.

The actions and strategies suggested by each organisation were extensive but key points include: more research (baseline data, relationship between soil properties and functions), incentivise good practice, make soil health a significant consideration in spatial planning and establish a UK wide monitoring network.

What role (if any) should soil health play in the Government’s upcoming 25 year plan for the natural environment?

There is agreement that soil health should be a significant aspect of the upcoming plan but there should be cross compliance with the 25 year plan for Food and Farming.

What next?

It is apparent from reviewing the written submissions that within a vast and complex area of research, there is consensus on many of the inquiry questions. The most varied responses were those relating to suggestions for future strategies that might encourage better management of soils as a resource. The deadline for written submissions closed on the 28 January. The next stage is for the committee panel to invite expert speakers to provide oral evidence.