Defra could be forced to make a U-turn on its decision not to pay farmers to improve soil health as part of a new payment for public goods model.
A report by the Government’s own Natural Capital Committee published this week said any future environmental land management scheme should incentivise farmers to help reverse soil degradation which is costing the UK £3.21 billion each year.
The report said: “The protection and enhancement of soil quantity, quality and health should be incorporated into any future environmental land management scheme (ELMS) to encourage beneficial practices.
"These include those that reduce climate change, increase biodiversity, avoid soil erosion and increase water holding capacity.”
Last month Farmers Guardian learned an application proposed by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust for an ELMS trial focused on crop rotations had been rejected.
Defra said healthy soil was a ‘natural asset’ from which public goods can flow, but not a public good in its own right.
This means any project which aimed to improve soil health alone would not attract investment under ELMS.
The decision, which has angered various farming organisations, led Taunton Deane MP and member of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, Rebecca Pow, to clarify the Government’s position with Farming Minister Robert Goodwill at Defra Questions last week.
Mr Goodwill said: “Having studied soil science at university, I understand that soil is one of our greatest assets, and indeed the numerous environmental benefits and services that can be derived from activities that enhance soil health will be eligible for public money.”
Speaking to FG afterwards, Mrs Pow said: “Since the EU referendum, Ministers have promised that soil health could be one of the great beneficiaries of leaving the Common Agricultural Policy – and that ELMS will be the mechanism to deliver it.
“Whilst I welcome the Minister’s statement that services derived from activities that enhance soil health will be eligible for public money, we should be going further and making a more specific commitment by designating soil as one of the headline indicators in the 25-year Environment Plan and soil should be listed as a public good in the forthcoming Agriculture Bill.
The MP said there was a ‘groundswell of interest in soil health’ amongst land managers and if the money was spent correctly, it could be the ‘tipping point to a fundamental shift in our national appreciation of soil’s value and importance’.