The recognition of soil’s importance in the Ag Bill is a statement of ambition few other countries can match, but there is more work to do if we’re to meet the Government’s target of having sustainably managed soils by 2030, says Sustainable Soils Alliance director Matthew Orman.
The recognition that soil health is to be financially rewarded under the terms of the new Agriculture Bill represents a significant watershed for both farmers and the environment.
In a last-minute addition, the Government confirmed it will provide financial assistance to farmers for protecting or improving soil quality under the proposed Environment Land Management (ELM) scheme.
It is the first time soil has been acknowledged as both a private asset and the provider of a wide range of public goods.
Indeed, soil is unique as the only natural asset which is a prerequisite for all six of the public goods listed in the Bill – both the obvious ones – climate change mitigation, livestock health and thriving plants and wildlife, and the less apparent – environmental hazards and countryside access.
The environmental argument for using public funds to invest in healthy soils is clear, and increasingly, so is the economic one.
The costs of soil degradation in England and Wales – through erosion, contamination, compaction or sealing – are estimated to be between £1.05 to £1.75bn/year.
And this does not account for soil’s considerable climate change impact through carbon sequestration and emissions.
Added to this is the fact that eighty percent of the cost of degraded soils occur off-site and, as such, are often of limited visibility to those whose actions may be causing them.
This discrepancy points to a systems-wide failure, one which only Government-led support can address.
Under the new scheme, farmers will soon have three reasons for increasing the health of their soils.
First of all, there is the productivity rationale – the improvements in livestock and crop quality and yield which healthy soils bring.
Second, there are the environmental benefits listed above – benefits we know the majority of farmers are very keen to deliver, but for which they may currently lack the tools and knowledge.
The soil health research to support farmers with their decision-making and soil management referred to in the Bill will be critical for achieving this.
Finally, there is the new economic rationale outlined in the new Bill – although the scope and scale of the financial support offered by the Government to farmers for improving soil health remains unclear.
The impetus the Government is giving to soil is not just about money though, and the references to research, monitoring and soil-management practices allude to the variety of policy levers which need to be pulled if the sea-change in appreciation of soil’s importance is to be achieved.
Financial support is critical, but so are education, regulation, assessment and enforcement – and equally important the inter-weaving of these diverse policy elements into a coherent whole.
The Farming Rules for Water, enforcement budgets, the responsibilities of the various agencies and future of farmer training and guidance will all have a role to play.
In developing such a strategy, Defra needs to be mindful of two other emerging factors.
Around the world – especially the US and Australia, but increasingly Europe – schemes are emerging which pay farmers for soil carbon sequestration via offsetting and equivalent mechanisms.
This could be a financial game-changer, but will bring with it novel (private sector-led) approaches to paying for, measuring and monitoring healthy soils.
The second factor is the growing consumer demand for sustainable food – and for tools, including labelling, to help them identify it.
Accurately accounting for soil health is crucial both for achieving an accurate reflection of any product’s environmental footprint, but also for educating and engaging the general public about its importance.
The complexity of soil – in terms of the services it provides, the variety of stakeholders engaged in it, the challenge of monetising its value and the fact that, unlike its environmental ‘peers’ air and water, it is ‘owned’ – are all reasons why it has been neglected as a policy area for so long.
And this is why the Government’s acknowledgement of soil health in the Bill is so welcome – a clear statement of ambition and commitment few other countries can claim to match.
It has the potential to kick-start the national awareness and appreciation of soil health which is so desperately needed – not least if the Government’s own target to have sustainably managed soils by 2030, outlined in the 25-Year Environment Plan, is to be achieved.
As part of this process, and for direction and context, the Government might even consider dusting off the proposed 2014 EU Soil Framework Directive.
The document is notorious in Brussels as the only Framework Directive ever to be taken off the table unadopted – thanks to three years of wrangling and the lobbying efforts of several EU Governments, including our own.
Just a thought…