Questions remain over England’s plan for improving soil health

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee has published the government’s response to its report on soil health, which called for soil health to be put on the same footing as water and air quality within government policy.

The committee welcomed the government’s positive response on some of its recommendations, such as its assertion that it recognises “the value in establishing a shared understanding of “sustainable soil management’ within the agricultural sector”. Although a year later than hoped, the Efra Committee was also glad to see a continued commitment to developing standardised ways of measuring soils through soil health indicators by 2025.

The committee said it was pleased that the government earlier this year announced that it would raise some payment rates to farmers and land managers for actions under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements, echoing calls in the committee’s report for enhanced payments to support environmental gains. The committee hoped that more efforts like these can be replicated in the future, with a particular focus on soil health.

However, on many other recommendations, the committee regretted that there was a vagueness in the government’s response. For instance, the aims of the Environment Agency’s Big Soil Stocktake lack clarity, meaning it is unclear how the government’s farming incentive schemes and guidance for farmers will be adapted to focus more on soil health. Although reviews and reforms of soil and fertiliser regulations were mentioned, it is not known whether these will lead to meaningful change.

The committee had recommended that the government should address issues in the food supply chain that encourage poor soil management, including low profitability for farmers and unsustainable consumer and retailer demands. The government’s response pointed to its June 2022 Food Strategy and its ongoing engagement with the agri-food industry. However, it set out few concrete proposals for change.

A number of government commitments lack deadlines – for example, the government “hopes” to publish its new National Action Plan for Sustainable Use of Pesticides “shortly”, and there is no set date for determining how the government will report on the effectiveness of its farming subsidy schemes for improving the environment, including soil health.

The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill, said, “We are glad that the government shares our committee’s concerns regarding the challenges facing soil health in England, but we are disappointed that its response to our report is noncommittal on several important measures, leaving much open to an unclear review process. There is also a lack of clarity to be found in the government’s response, on questions such as who will be responsible for ongoing soil monitoring once a baseline is established and how this will be funded.

“While we wanted the government to be more ambitious in its targets, urging for over 90% of agricultural land to meet a definition of ‘sustainably managed’ by 2040, we are disappointed that the government has settled on a lower target in this area, without explaining why.”

Reflecting to the government’s response to the Efra Committee’s report, Soil Association Head of Farming Policy Gareth Morgan said, “We depend on soil for almost all our food production and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee rightly warns that soil is vital for all life on Earth. This is why the Soil Association and others sought to amend the Environment Act so that soil is given the same protection as water, air and nature.

“It is alarming that government has ignored this advice from the Efra inquiry and failed to act on many recommendations including the call to better regulate harmful practices. Its response today is largely a reiteration of previous commitments and this underlines the need for a Soil Health Action Plan which was promised but never delivered.

“With millions of hectares of UK soil at risk, and much of our farmland flooded, farmers need help and a strong legal framework to change the way soil is managed. It is essential we stop practices that we know are harming soils and, as a result, food security. This will require regulation, recovery targets, and support for farmers.

“The target to bring 60% of soils under sustainable management is simply insufficient. We cannot leave almost half of this vital resource at risk. We need nature-friendly, agroecological and organic farming across all our farmland if we are to achieve Efra’s recommendation for 90% of soils to be managed sustainably.”

Read the Efra Committee soil report
Read the UK Government response

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