In what is possibly the first ever report on soil health by a UK Parliamentary committee, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has highlighted the threat to society and future food security if soils continue to be managed unsustainably. It calls for Defra to ensure that its upcoming 25-year environment plan puts soil protection at its heart. The report states that “we must move away from viewing soil merely as a growth medium and treat it as an ecosystem in its own right”, a view which lines up closely with the concerns of many farmers and campaigners in the UK and around the world.

The report focuses on four aspects of soil health: contamination, soil carbon loss including peat, soil erosion caused by incentives to grow maize for energy generation instead of food production, and the lack of a national soil monitoring scheme to monitor nationwide trends in soil health adequately.

The report leads on the issue of contaminated former industrial land, which in the UK covers an area of 300,000 hectares. It correctly criticises Defra’s decision to reduce funding for contaminated land remediation and calls for this funding to be restored.

The committee received evidence from a large number of soil scientists and NGOs, including the Sustainable Food Trust. The SFT strongly endorses the report’s call for “action to improve soil organic matter”, particularly the acknowledgement of the importance of the Paris COP21 initiative – to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year – to which the UK Government signed up. It also welcomes the committee’s recommendations on the need to do more to protect soils overall and soil biota and soil structure specifically.

Sadly, however, despite acknowledging that there has been a “worrying decline” in soil carbon in the UK’s arable soils since 1978, members of the EAC stopped short of spelling out their conclusions or recommendations for effective action on soil carbon restoration on agricultural land. This is arguably the most important aspect they had to consider, even though they received evidence on this from several sources. They mistakenly said that “there is widespread agreement on how organic matter and thus carbon levels can be improved”.

This is a serious weakness of the report because opinions actually vary considerably, with many advocates of continuous arable cropping, including GM crops, still believing that soil carbon levels can be increased through the use of minimum or no-tillage systems depending as they do on the herbicide glyphosate. However, a review by scientists from the UK’s respected Rothamsted Research in 2014 showed that any small apparent increase in carbon in the top part of the soil profile is offset by losses deeper down, resulting in no overall increase.

Several witnesses told the committee that the crisis in soil carbon loss can be traced back to the abandonment of mixed farming and in his oral evidence, Peter Melchett from the Soil Association reinforced the SFT’s written evidence on the only reliable way to rebuild soil carbon in farmland without taking it out of production. He stated,

“You use green cover crops in the winter, you do not leave the soil exposed, you use, where you can, crops with deeper roots so you have more biomass to put back into the soil. You put the crop waste, the straw, ideally through a cattle shed and then it is farmyard manure or compost back into the soil. You use rotations that include grass.”

While the committee cites this passage in the report, its failure to make a recommendation on the vital importance of grass in rebuilding soil carbon levels means that the Government will not have to address this point when it responds to the report’s recommendation.

Defra Minister, Rory Stewart told the committee that the Government would prioritise action to reduce further carbon losses from arable cropping on peat soils such as those in the Fens. He called this the “low hanging fruit”. While this is in itself important, it relates to a relatively small area of land where most of the damage has already been done. And this omission suggests that the Government may still fail to honour the commitments it made in its Safeguarding Our Soils report in 2009, where it outlined its vision that by 2030 “all England’s soils will be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully.”

The third aspect covered in the report relates to regulation and incentives, in particular the failings of cross compliance rules to do anything tangible to restore soil health and the perverse impact of some current incentives. The report exposes the double subsidy for maize produced for anaerobic digestion (biogas) which has increased the amount of land used for unsustainably managed maize production, leading to dramatic soil degradation, as highlighted in the Soil Association’s report Runaway maize: subsidised soil destruction published last year.

In a big boost to the Soil Association’s campaign the report accepted their evidence and recommended that:

“Renewable energy subsidies for anaerobic digestion should be restructured to avoid harmful unintended consequences. Revisions should either exclude maize from the subsidy altogether or impose strict conditions”.

Finally, the report calls for a national programme to monitor soil health, noting that current statements about undertaking a survey in the future are not enough, particularly given the increased problem of land degradation across the country.

While this is an important and valuable report, it falls short in a number of important areas and also overlooks much of the evidence it received, including evidence from the SFT on the cost of soil degradation in the UK; the importance of grassland in river catchment and clean drinking water management; the problems of increasing extremes of acidity and alkalinity in UK soils and the problems caused by cadmium impurities in phosphate fertilisers, as well as evidence from the Permaculture Association’s relating to citizen-led science tests for soil (alongside air, water quality and biodiversity); and their proposal (also submitted as evidence to the committee) for a national soil monitoring campaign built on citizen science.

Photograph: Kai C. Schwarzer

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news