Soil health – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Related inquiry: Soil Health

Date Published: 5 December 2023

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Soil is a natural resource that is integral to various ecosystem services, such as food production and flooding mitigation. Healthy soils are necessary for meeting our climate and biodiversity goals and protecting the health of our population. Despite its importance, evidence suggests that human activity is putting the health of our soils at serious risk. It is critically important to course-correct over the coming years to secure our food supply, bolster our natural environment and preserve life on earth.

Immediate action is hampered by a lack of agreed soil health indicators as well as limited data on soil management and soil health. The Government has initiated programmes that will go some way to resolve this issue, culminating in a soil health map by 2028. We encourage the Government to establish its promised soil health indicators by 2024 so that all stakeholders can start working towards common goals. This would also allow the Government—as well as its arm’s-length bodies—to monitor progress and the impact of policies, particularly the Government’s Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs). However, we believe that more could be done to provide earlier insights into soil health and gain a granular picture of what is happening both within and on the ground: for example, the Government’s ELM schemes could encourage the collection of standardised field-level data. It is also critical that funding for the monitoring programme is secured for the long-term.

Collecting this information and determining these indicators will be vital for the next important step: setting clear and measurable targets for improving soil health in England. To provide leadership, these targets should be a fundamental part of future iterations of the Environmental Improvement Plan—due by 2028—and be underpinned by a statutory requirement to make progress on improving soils to bring it in line with already existing targets for other important natural resources such as air and water. We also hope that the Government provides some clear leadership through the promised Land Use Framework, which should provide advice on the best uses of land as well as the trade-offs that may need to be considered, as land use is one of the most important factors that affect soil health and wider environmental outcomes.

The ELM schemes are the main vehicle through which the Government aims to improve soil management in the agricultural sector, which makes up around 70% of land use in England. Consequently, these voluntary schemes must be more widely accessible and more attractive to farmers than they are at present. We believe that the budget for ELM schemes should be increased to reflect the environmental benefits they bring and allow for an uplift in payment rates to drive take-up. By 2040, the Government should aim for nearly all agricultural land to be within an ELM scheme, underpinned by clear and agreed definition(s) of “sustainable soil management.” This will have to be a flexible, reasonable but stretching definition, agreed with other important stakeholders.

ELM schemes, however, cannot be the whole story. These do not address the other supply chain issues that drive unsustainable farming, such as the lack of profitability in the sector, unsustainable retailer and consumer demands and a need to boost the supply of a diverse range of organic inputs. A strategy is needed to address these problems.

It is also important not to rely solely on voluntary initiatives. To ensure the polluter pays and instil minimum standards, the Government must look towards a future regulatory framework for soils, informed by the agreed definition of sustainable soil management. This framework should initially come into effect after the agricultural transition—we recommend by 2035—so that the Government can focus on an incentive-based approach to improve its relationship with the farming community as well as collect the data needed to develop the framework. As ELMs and regulations are reviewed over time, these should be designed in lockstep with each other to strike a balance between rules and incentives: in the end, the former should focus on soil protection whereas the latter concentrates on soil restoration. This framework should contain adequate protections against soil contamination through organic inputs although we think that more needs to be done upstream, through policies such as Extended Producer Responsibility, to prevent contamination at source. A regulatory framework should also provide protections for soils across multiple land uses, not just in agriculture. For instance, the Government should consider whether the voluntary codes of practice for managing soil waste on construction sites should become mandatory to prevent soils going to landfill.

Any regulatory framework—as well as ELMs—will need effective compliance monitoring. The Environment Agency and Rural Payments Agency must be adequately resourced to ensure that these rules are followed: inspections need to become more routine, not just to catch the bad actors, but also so that land managers can benefit from the advice and support that the Government wants these organisations to provide. This work could also be enhanced by taking steps to improve the guidance, skills and education available so that land managers and their advisors have the tools they need to properly factor soil health into their decision-making. To achieve this, there should be a review of soil health skills and more investment into farmer-led research of sustainable agricultural systems as well as peer-to-peer knowledge exchange initiatives which have proved to be highly effective at sharing best practices.