Hot on the heels of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on Soil Health published on 2nd June, and the momentum generated by last year’s ‘International Year of Soil’ and World Soil Day – which was also the day we published our report on soil degradation, the APPG on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming has just carried out an inquiry on soil health.

Over three meetings in late 2015, the APPG gathered evidence on soil health and protection of soils in the UK and globally from a panel of cross party MPs and Peers, together with expert witness contributions from the NFU, Rothamstead Research, the Soil Association, Cranfield University and War on Want, among others. On 12th June, the APPG published four reports based on these meetings, highlighting a range of serious concerns with the state of UK soils and a series of policy recommendations for government. These reports are: Education & Training summaryFarming methodsSoil and climate change and Testing and data collection

The first of these reports, on education and training, outlines some of the problems with current training including the decline in soil science university courses, and the lack of training and advisory services for farmers and people involved in the agriculture and environmental sector. It points out that up to 80% of the costs associated with soil degradation – estimated at around £1.2 billion – are borne by the public rather than farmers, and that incentives need to be given to support farmers trying to improve soil health. It suggests that a ‘Beacon Farms’ network could help to transfer knowledge from the most progressive farms to others.

Policy recommendations for education and training include:

  • Increase the prominence and availability of soil knowledge throughout the education system;
  • Improve dissemination of good management practices;
  • Build and preserve

The second report, on farming methods, highlights some of the practices which can improve soil health and should be encouraged by policies such as improving the incentives in Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Policy recommendations for farming methods include:

  • Increase the incentives for agricultural practices that benefit soil health;
  • Include support for agroforestry and farm diversification within Pillar 2 of CAP;
  • Improve cross-compliance regulations so that the minimum requirements for single farm payments include greater protections for soil.

The third report, on climate change, emphasises that more research is needed on the GHG differences between extensive and intensive farming systems, and that soil policies need to be linked together with their potential impact on the climate, as well as on health, animal welfare, biodiversity and pollution.

Policy recommendations for soil and climate change include:

  • Recognise the climate mitigation potential of healthy soils and incorporate this into the government’s climate change strategy;
  • Incentivise combined agroforestry systems which encourage tree planting combined with continued or improved agricultural production.

The fourth and final report on soil testing and data collection criticises the CAP’s ‘Soil Risk Assessment’ for allowing damaging practices and emphasises the need for financial incentives to encourage farmers to increase the amount of soil organic matter (SOM) in their soils.

Policy recommendations for soil testing and data collection include:

  • Create a long term target to increase SOM at the national level;
  • Use the CAP’s Pillar 2 measures to target soil directly and provide incentives to farmers to improve soil health.
  • Develop policies to measure the condition of soils on farms and provide financial incentives to tenant farmers and/or owners to maintain conditions, if they are already favourable.

A significant amount of the spadework on soil health policies has already been done by this APPG, the Environmental Audit Committee, and a large number of NGOs, including the Sustainable Food Trust. It is now time for the government to build on this and take bold action to ensure that soil health moves up towards the top of the environmental agenda.

Photograph: Cristian Bortos

 

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