Soil, water and air are all essential to human life and society—but of these three, soil is often the forgotten component. Yet soil is crucial to agricultural production, climate change mitigation and adaptation, urban development, and flood risk management. Neglecting the health of our soil could lead to reduced food security, increased greenhouse gas emissions, greater flood risk, and damage to public health. We heard that some of the most productive agricultural land in the country is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation due to soil erosion and loss of organic carbon, and the natural environmental will be seriously harmed. The Government says it will ensure that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030. Our inquiry suggests that the Government’s actions do not match its ambition, and casts doubt on whether we are on track to achieve the 2030 goal.
Around 300,000 hectares of soil are thought to be affected by legacy contamination from the UK’s industrial past. Local authority duties to clean up contaminated land are set out in the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Defra has recently withdrawn capital grant funding for local authorities to clean up contamination. Defra refused to assess the impact of withdrawing the grants, saying that other local authority funding would suffice. This is surprising given that the bulk of contamination clean-up under the relevant part of the Act was funded by Defra’s capital grants. We are concerned that Defra appears complacent about this policy, and that in withdrawing the funding it has undermined local authorities’ ability to meet their statutory duties. We have heard evidence that Defra is wrong to dismiss the impact of its policy: some local authorities now have no budget to investigate contamination, and we heard that it would be ‘reckless’ for a local authority to investigate a site if there is no funding in place for remediation. This presents the real danger that contaminated sites are being left unidentified, with consequential public health impacts. A small amount of temporary funding was recently announced, but we call on Defra to continue this funding and set it at the level of the previous scheme.
Soil is a massive carbon sink, storing three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Soil carbon is particularly concentrated in peatlands. Degradation of soil leads to increased carbon emissions and contributes to climate change—so each tonne of carbon retained in soil provides flexibility elsewhere in the economy for meeting our carbon budgets. The carbon content of soil is also important to wider soil health. The UK’s arable soils have seen a worrying decline in carbon levels since 1978, with widespread and ongoing decline in peat soil carbon. At COP21 the Government signed up to a scheme to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year. Our witnesses told us that methods to increase soil carbon are well-understood but not implemented to their full potential. The Government must set out specific, measureable and time-limited plans to meet the goal to increase soil carbon. The Government should take tougher action to tackle land use practices which degrade peat, such as burning of blanket bogs. It should also explain how the results of its research into lowland peat management will inform its 25-year environment plan.
The Government relies on ‘cross-compliance’ rules associated with farm payments to regulate agricultural soil health. Landowners are required to keep their land in good agricultural and environmental condition, and can be fined if they breach rules requiring minimum soil cover, management of erosion, and maintenance of soil organic matter. However, we heard evidence suggesting that the rules and their implementation are not sufficient to support the Government’s 2030 ambition to manage soil sustainably. Crucial elements of soil health, such as structure and biology, are not assessed at all. The rules are accompanied by a minimalistic inspection regime which Defra aims to reduce further, and only two breaches were detected in 2015. The rules allow for excessive loopholes and often focus on preventing practices which are already widely abandoned. Moreover, the rules focus primarily on preventing further damage to soil, when an effective system would also focus on restoration and improvement of soil health. We call on the Government to review and consult on its implementation of cross-compliance to increase the scope, force and ambition of the scheme.
Knowing how our actions are affecting soil health is crucial to developing effective policy. However, the UK lacks an ongoing national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health. Many indicators of soil health change slowly, so it is appropriate to measure only every few years—but successive Governments have neglected to establish a rolling scheme to monitor soil health. We heard that such a scheme could be affordable and would not be overly difficult to establish. We call on the Government to set up such a scheme and to explore whether innovations from Wales, involving alignment and co-funding with EU payments, could be rolled out to the rest of the country.
The Government has an ambitious goal to ensure that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030. Current policy does not put us on a trajectory to meet this goal. Further action is required to back up the Government’s laudable words on soil health. The Government should use its upcoming 25-year environment plan to propose policies to strengthen soil protection, so that policies are not focused merely on damage limitation but encourage restoration and improvement of soil quality & organic matter.
27 May 2016