Just 0.41 per cent of money invested into environmental monitoring in England is dedicated to soil health, a Freedom of Information request by the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA) has revealed.
In 2017/18, £60.5 million was spent on monitoring water quality and quantity, £7.65m was spent monitoring air, and just £287,780 was spent on tracking soil health.
According to SSA, soil monitoring falls within the remit of Natural England, which takes place under the Long-term Monitoring Network at a cost of just over £22,000 each year.
The FOI request was made shortly after the SSA argued unsuccessfully for soil health to be included among the headline indicators of environmental change of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
The lack of coordinated national data collection on soil erosion or formation rates in UK agricultural soils was a critical reason why soil health could not be considered, SSA says.
Prof Jonathan Leake, SSA advisor and professor of plant-soil interactions at the University of Sheffield, says: "There is an urgent need to develop a far more comprehensive national soil quality monitoring programme that allows us to understand whether key soil functions are being degraded, maintained or improved.
“The key functions of priority include organic carbon storage, infiltration/drainage rates, and water storage capacity, linked to potential effects on climate change mitigation, water quality and flood risks.”
Prof Jennifer Dungait, of consultancy firm, Soil Health Expert, says she is seeing increased focus on soil health from landowners.
“These range from self-educating and proactive farmers doing it for themselves – trying new approaches and sharing their knowledge and experience – to others who are resistant to altering their normal soil management, but who can see that change in the whole farming sector is inevitable,” she says.
However, despite investment in soil monitoring and testing being made by individual farmers, the lack of national direction and coordination, coupled with a wide range in the quality and reliability of advice and laboratory testing being sold to farmers to do so, means the investment is often wasted, she adds.
“At national level, a continuous cycle of soil monitoring across the UK is essential which means
assured, ring-fenced funding into the future,” she says.
“Whatever and wherever the data is, it needs to be free access to those who are responsible for the management of soil, including farmers, so that they can use it to make better soil management decisions based upon evidence.”
A Defra spokesperson told Farmers Guardian that levels of spending on air and water reflect the statutory levels of monitoring that must take place, but that it is putting greater prominence on the importance of soils and monitoring soil health, which is why the 25 Year Environment Plan sets out an ambitious target of having all soils managed sustainably by 2030.
“In order to deliver this, we are developing a healthy soils indicator to set these new soil health targets and our landmark Agriculture Bill specifically details how farmers will be supported to protect and improve the health of our precious soils,” the spokesperson says.