Creeping urbanisation and housebuilding on non-brownfield sites are threatening the health of the UK’s soils, according to the Environment Agency (EA).
The EA sounded the alarm in a new report which raised concerns about the ‘catastrophic’ impact a growing population is likely to have on soil.
“Population increase and economic pressure are increasing the amount of agricultural and rural land being used for building,” the report said.
“Once soil is lost, its ability to deliver its functions is very difficult to retrieve and, in the long-term, this could be catastrophic.
“The rate of urbanisation has been continually increasing. On average, 200,000 new homes are being built every year, but demand is still not being met and only about half are built on brownfield sites.
“The rest are sealing up soils, preventing them from accumulating organic matter and providing other important ecosystem services.”
Despite this recognition of the impact urbanisation can have on soils, the EA also blamed ‘intensive agriculture’ for causing arable soils to lose 40-60 per cent of their organic carbon.
The report called on Government to use the new Environmental Land Management Scheme ELMS) to reward farmers for protecting and regenerating soils, just weeks after Farmers Guardian reported Defra had excluded soil health from its list of public goods to be paid for post-Brexit.
Director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA) Matthew Orman said: “We welcome this report which provides a summary of the vital ecosystem services provided by our soils and the pressures they are under.
“It seems hardly a month goes by without another study shining a spotlight on soil’s importance, and vulnerability, and yet there is still no evidence of a coherent, tangible Government strategy to address it, or a policy framework which reflects the scale and complexity of the issue.”
The report was published as AHDB launched a ‘traffic light and MOT’ system to help farmers manage their soils.
Growers scoring ‘red’ on soil health indicators will be advised to stop and investigate any potential issues, while a green score allows farmers to continue to monitor.
A soil MOT is also being trialled which provides a guide to carry out nutrient analysis, an earthworm count and visual evaluation, while measuring soil pH levels and organic matter content.
The system has been put together as part of a research partnership and is being trialled at six research farms across Britain.