Soil Health Contents

4Agricultural soil protection: incentives and regulations

The cross compliance regime

55.It is in the interest of landowners to protect the soil on their land, as not doing so can affect their agricultural production. Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, emphasised this:

The primary incentive to do the right thing is that it is good for their farm business. We have to do all we can to communicate to people that eroding your soil is effectively like burning your house down. You have a farm business and you are reliant on that soil in order to grow crops and maintaining a healthy soil is maintaining the basic bedrock of your business.111

56.However, research shows that 80% of the costs of soil degradation are experienced away from the site where the degradation takes place—for example, in increased flood risk, reduced water quality, and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.112 In addition, the benefits of soil health are not always felt by those maintaining the soil. Defra explained how this makes a level of Government involvement in soil protection necessary:

Soil also provides wider ecosystem services to society, for example through carbon sequestration, water quality regulation, and flood regulation. It is imperative that these wider societal benefits are protected and enhanced, and yet it is not currently in the private interests of landowners to invest in doing so, nor is there any marketplace in which soil benefits can be transacted. Hence government has a clear role in protecting the wider social, economic and environmental benefits that non-degraded soil provides.113

57.Defra’s key lever for ensuring protection of soil health is the cross-compliance rules for Rural Payments Agency payments. These rules, revised in 2015, require that those in receipt of payments keep their land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC). Defra describes the “outcome-based” rules as follows:

[A]nyone claiming a Common Agricultural Policy payment must comply with [cross-compliance]. The rules require a basic level of protection for soils through management techniques that: maintain minimum soil cover, particularly in the wetter winter months; prevent and ameliorate erosion; and retain levels of organic matter, through a ban on burning arable stubble, management of heather and grass burning and not carrying out improvements on uncultivated land. Where breaches are found, farmers can receive a penalty between 1-5% from their Basic Payment Scheme.114

58.While these requirements are related to payments under the Common Agricultural Policy, it is up to member states to decide the exact specification of GAEC parameters, including minimum requirements.115 Three GAEC requirements address soil protection: GAEC 4 requires minimum soil cover unless there is an agronomic reason for not doing so, GAEC 5 requires limiting of erosion through land management reflecting site specific conditions, and GAEC 6 requires maintenance of soil organic matter level through appropriate practices.116 These minimum standards replaced the previous requirement to complete and retain a Soil Protection Review. Defra told us that in 2015 only two breaches were identified under soil cross compliance rules, and that both were on the same farm. This contrasts with 478 breaches in 2014 for failing to complete the Soil Protection Review.117

59.We received evidence suggesting that the GAEC requirements are not adequate to ensure soil protection, and that they do not cover crucial elements of soil health.118 Professor Mark Kibblewhite described the requirements as “minimal and inadequate” and suggested that they indicate that the Government emphasises minimising regulation above protecting soil.119 The British Ecological Society noted that GAEC provides no regulations on soil fauna, microdiversity, or structure.120 Other important aspects of soil health not covered by GAEC, which we heard are crucially important to soil health, include soil biota such as earthworms.121 Dr Jacqueline Hannam (Cranfield University) also noted that the GAEC conditions do not encompass the full range of soil health issues, and doubted that the latest approach to cross compliance marked an improvement on previous initiatives:

These GAEC rules replace the Soil Protection Review (SPR). However, non-completion of the SPR was one common reason for failure of cross-compliance inspections (and thus fines for non-compliance). This raises uncertainty as to whether the GAEC approach is the most effective at implementing soil protection guidance.122

However Martin Rogers (National Farmers’ Union) said that the Soil Protection Review was a “solely written based exercise”, that the new GAEC requirements involves “key practical management requirements”, and that it marks a “step in the right direction”.123

60.We also heard evidence casting doubt on the effectiveness of specific GAEC requirements. On GAEC 4, which requires that farmers provide minimum soil cover, Wildlife and Countryside Link told us that the list of agronomic reasons for not providing cover provides an overly “broad loophole” to avoid having to meet the standard.124 GAEC 6, which requires maintenance of soil organic matter, was described by Prof Mark Kibblewhite as a “non-policy policy measure” since it mainly bans practices which are already abandoned and as such achieves no new improvement to inputs of organic matter to soil.125 In addition, the University of Aberdeen said that because the GAEC conditions are qualitative descriptors they are difficult to assess on the farm, making implementation and assessment more difficult.126 Indeed, Defra told us that no breaches of GAEC 6 had yet been identified.127

61.For other witnesses, the scale of inspections for GAEC was a concern. David Thompson (Committee on Climate Change) told us that “the inspection of whether those actions are being taken is pretty minimal”, and Prof Mark Kibblewhite said that “there has to be serious doubts about the effectiveness of Defra’s inspection regime, bearing in mind the large number of farms relative to inspectors and the impact of cuts to Defra’s resources”.128 In this context, it should be noted that Defra aims to further “reduce the number of farm inspections” in its Single Departmental Plan, with the goal of reducing the regulatory burden on business.129

62.Other witnesses argued that the cross compliance rules lack ambition. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology noted that while the conditions of GAEC are important for ‘damage limitation’, they are “significantly inadequate if soil health is to be positively promoted to the same degree as water and biodiversity.”130 Sue Cornwell (National Trust) echoed the view that a regulation scheme which only concentrates on preventing damaging practices does not achieve everything we need:

Yes, you need to be clear about particularly damaging practices, and I think those things are picked up in the current good agricultural and environmental conditions requirements, but not doing certain things is only ever going to get you a very small part of the way to looking after your soils and managing your soils differently.131

63.Prof Jim Harris (Cranfield University) echoed this sentiment, explaining how soil protection is part of a wider system:

I think that it is important that Defra sets the direction of travel for not only protection and conservation of what we have but restoration of natural capital and general soils in particular. It is very difficult sometimes to talk about soils in isolation. You have to think of them as part of a system, and I am interested across the whole spectrum from intensive agriculture through urban to natural systems. I think that there is an opportunity there to make some quite bold statements about wishing to improve, enhance and restore in addition to protect and conserve.132

64.Professor Chris Collins indicated that effective regulation of soil health would require evidence-based policy on how to define soil health:

To ensure healthy soils we need to move away from regarding soil as a “growth medium” - it is an ecosystem in its own right that requires management to maintain diversity of soil types and the biota within them. There needs to be clear policy direction, evidence based, that defines what soil health is, and critically the measures to be used to evaluate it.133

65.Martin Rogers (NFU) argued the importance of educating farmers in how to manage soil sustainably:

It is vital that they have an agricultural knowledge and background so that they can ask some of the questions that may come from it” … “A lot of that is specifically about the management of cover crops because, time and time again, we say, “Use cover crops” but the question is always asked: how do I destroy cover crops? How do I treat them? How do I ensure that the cover crop I use is the best for my soil type? Finding what those questions are and directly answering them in farmer facing events is key. Documents or advice that is published goes some way but there always has to be that funding and support for that kind of activity.134

66.We heard evidence from Prof Dave Chadwick (Bangor University) suggesting that Wales has a more focused approach to regulation of agricultural payments:

The Welsh Government has been slightly clever there and what it has done is it has targeted certain areas of Wales where it says, “This is the place where we need people and restoration”. Whereas somewhere else it might be, “This is where we are willing to concentrate on water quality”. While the menu of different interventions remains the same for the farmers, they get more payment for a particular intervention that delivers that ecosystem service in that area. It is a sort of targeted approach. 135

67.Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, did not comment specifically on the criticisms of cross compliance. He did, however, indicate that Defra is open to “clear ideas” on what kinds of subsidy and incentive regimes could improve soil health.136

68.There is reason to doubt that the current cross compliance regime is achieving its goal of preventing soil damage. In 2015 only two breaches of the soil rules were detected. Moreover, the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition standards are not ambitious enough to support Defra’s goal that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030, since they focus only on preventing damaging practices and not on restoration or improvement of soil quality. The requirements also fail to address important aspects of soil health such as soil biota and soil structure.

69.The Government should produce and consult on proposals to increase the ambition, scope and effectiveness of cross compliance in order to mitigate the impact of agriculture on soil health and incentivise provision of wider ecosystems services such as water quality and flood protection. Revised requirements and incentives for landowners should be centred on restoration and improvement of soil quality and organic matter, and not merely a ‘damage limitation’ approach. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should indicate how the Government plans to ensure that the incentive structure for farmers will contribute to the sustainable management of all soils by 2030. In drawing up its partner 25-year plan for food and farming, Defra must ensure that measures to improve agricultural production do not lead to compromise on soil health. In particular, in meeting its goal to reduce burdens on farmers, Defra must not undermine the effectiveness of its policy levers to ensure soil protection.

Subsidies for maize for anaerobic digestion

70.In addition to concerns about the effectiveness of CAP subsidy monitoring, we have also heard evidence that some public subsidies encourage practices which damage soil health. Chief among these is the growth of maize for anaerobic digestion. The Soil Association said that maize is “probably the most rapidly expending crop in the UK”, with an increase in area from 8,000 hectares in 1973 to 186,000 at present. Between 2008 and 2014 the area increased by 20%.137 Around 20% of maize is used as an energy crop for anaerobic digestors (AD) that are used to produce energy. Maize can be grown to meet ‘greening’ requirements, and is subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy.138 It then receives a second subsidy through renewable energy initiatives. The Soil Association estimates that AD plants receive £50m in subsidies each year.139

71.Maize production can increase soil erosion. David Powlson (Rothamsted Research) told us:

Any time that you have soil that is bare with nothing growing on it between crops, or big spaces between the plants, like in the situation of maize, all of those factors are likely to increase the likelihood of erosion, particularly under climate change where it is expected that there are likely to be rather more extreme events, such as rainfall.140

David Thompson (Committee on Climate Change) noted that not all of the growth in maize production is accounted for by AD. He also offered further evidence of the effects of maize:

There was a study in the south-west of England that showed that in three-quarters of fields under maize, the soil was so damaged that the rain is unable to penetrate, so the water just runs straight off into rivers, into water courses.141

72.CLA told us that while “maize production can lead to soil and nutrient losses at harvest and during winter,” there are strategies for mitigating this:

Using early maturing varieties, sowing as early as possible, and planting under plastic can reduce the risk of harvesting in poor conditions later in the year. Certain management practices can also significantly reduce water, nutrient and sediment runoff during winter. Chisel ploughing, under-sowing and cover-cropping can reduce runoff compared with leaving maize stubble untouched.142

73.The National Trust suggested that we need to move to a “situation where crops that present a high risk of damage to soils are not grown in places where soils are vulnerable (e.g. maize should only be grown in low risk locations)”.143

74.The Soil Association described maize for AD as a threat to food production, saying that the area of farmland projected for new maize crops for AD in the UK “would be sufficient to produce 2 billion loaves of wholemeal bread.”144 Peter Melchett (Soil Association) told the Committee that while AD production makes sense if (for example) slurry is used, it does not make sense to subsidise maize for this purpose:

[T]he subsidies that are given to AD production, do not, up until now, distinguish between the source of the fuel that is put into the AD unit. An AD unit taking slurry from cattle or pig waste or chicken waste and turning it into gas and a fertiliser is a sensible use of the technology. Growing hundreds of acres of maize or sugar beet with huge inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, which is then subsidised from the public purse to the farmer putting it into an AD unit, which is subsidised from the public purse to the AD operator, makes no sense.”145

75.Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, accepted that “maize planted incorrectly, harvested at the wrong time of year or in the wrong climatic conditions can contribute to soil erosion.” He also emphasised that some consequences of poor land management related to maize can trigger breaches of cross compliance:

If your maize processes are contributing to soil erosion, that is in breach of your cross-compliance regulations and the RPA can then fine you for doing that.146

However he claimed that the subsidy policy was outside his responsibility:

That is really an issue for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is predominantly about energy policy, renewable energy policy and the different types of renewable energy policy, but we certainly within the Department are looking closely from our point of view at the costs and benefits of that kind of activity.147

76.In relation to this apparent clash of policy priorities between Government departments, we heard evidence that the Welsh devolved administration is making efforts to ‘join-up’ soils policy between Government departments. As part of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, soil quality is included as a key indicator alongside healthy life expectancy, water quality and air quality. Prof Dave Chadwick explained the benefits of this:

[T]here is more integration of the mainstream of soil within the different departments, so you are not just thinking of soil as just one thing in isolation. It is the realisation that soil is pivotal in the delivery of multiple ecosystem services. [ … ] That multipurpose approach obviously gives good cost benefit, cost effectiveness. It brings the different departments together and—really importantly—it allows you to start to see where any win/wins might be or where any undesirable consequences might be.148

77.Maize production can damage soil health when managed incorrectly, and incentives for anaerobic digestion should be structured to reflect this. The double subsidy for maize produced for anaerobic digestion is counterproductive and has contributed to the increase in land used for maize production. This subsidy regime represents a clear case in which better joined-up thinking across Government is required in order to ensure that soils are managed sustainably. The Government’s ambition to manage all soils sustainably by 2030 cannot be met if Defra does not achieve buy-in from other departments to achieve the ambition.

78.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 on subsidised maize production to avoid practices in high-risk locations which lead to soil damage. The broader cross-compliance regime has not proved sufficient to prevent such damage. Defra and DECC should work together to evaluate the impact of energy policy on soil health across the board. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should include specific plans for inter-departmental working and structures of accountability with the goal that soil protection is not simply the responsibility of Defra, but rather is a factor against which any policy can be measured.

111 Rory Stewart Q241

113 Defra (SHI56); See also Soil Research Centre, University of Reading (SHI77); The Permaculture Association Britain (SHI13)

114 Defra (SHI56)

115 MARS Joint Research Centre, GAEC

117 Defra (SHI90)

118 See Wildlife and Countryside Link (SHI61); National Trust (SHI68); James Hutton Institute (SHI52); Dr Robert Evans (SHI27); Sue Everett (SHI24); Institute for Global Food Security (SHI64); Soil Security Programme (SHI48)

119 Prof Mark Kibblewhite (SHI12)

120 British Ecological Society (SHI58)

121 See Institute for Global Food Security (SHI64) for discussion of soil as a biological reactor. See also National Farmers’ Union (SHI44); National Trust (SHI68); Promessa Soil (SHI04); Woodland Trust (SHI38)

122 Dr Jacqueline Hannam (Cranfield University, SHI41); See also University of Sheffield Grantham Institute for Sustainable Futures (SHI33)

123 Martin Rogers, Q31; See also Soil First Farming (SHI65)

124 Wildlife and Countryside Link (SHI61)

125 Prof Mark Kibblewhite (SHI12)

126 University of Aberdeen (SHI60)

127 Defra (SHI90)

128 David Thompson (CCC) Q77; Prof Mark Kibblewhite (SHI12); See also University of Sheffield Grantham Institute for Sustainable Futures (SHI33)

130 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, (SHI72)

131 Sue Cornwell, Q31. See also University of Sheffield Grantham Institute for Sustainable Futures (SHI33)

132 Prof Jim Harris, Q184

133 Soil Security Programme (SHI48); See also Soil Research Centre, University of Reading (SHI77)

134 Martin Rogers, Q19

135 Prof Dave Chadwick, Q177. See also Reading Agricultural Consultants (SHI73)

136 Rory Stewart, Q262

138 Greening supports action to “adopt and maintain farming practices that help meet environment and climate goals”. See an explanation from the European Commission.

139 Soil Association (SHI62).

140 David Powlson (Q87). See also Soil Association (SHI62); Wildlife and countryside link (SHI61); Committee on Climate Change (SHI46)

141 David Thompson, Q45

142 CLA (SHI39)

143 National Trust (SHI68)

144 Soil Association (SHI62)

145 Peter Melchett, Q44

146 Rory Stewart, Q277

147 Rory Stewart, Q277

148 Dave Chadwick, Q178

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

27 May 2016