The need for a soil health framework to support policy development

Why scientists must join up, align and underpin policy

A brief history of soils and policy

Bringing soil science and policymaking together is the fundamental objective of the organisation I co-founded in 2017, the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA). Our constitution reflects the challenge at hand, so we function as a hybrid of a campaigning organisation and a think tank; on the one hand calling on policymakers, corporations and other stakeholders to give soils the status they deserve and on the other channelling soil expertise to help ensure this is done with rigour and authenticity. Our hope is that by supporting these links we can promote the creation of soil policies that are clear, consistent and ambitious.

We were delighted therefore that the British Society of Soil Science (BSSS) took the opportunity of their World Congress tenure to convene its first ever policy session in a history stretching back nearly a century. Timely, because soils are finally on the agenda of politicians both here and around the world – and because they are increasingly looking to scientists for answers.

It is often said that soils are the Cinderella among other environmental indicators. We corroborated this in 2020 when we demonstrated that of the money spent on monitoring the three principal environmental indicators in England – air, soil and water - soil receives just 0.4%. If the value we place on something is reflected by the financial investment we give it, then this figure paints a pretty clear picture of soil’s place in our society’s pecking order. 

At the time of our launch, various incarnations of soil strategies were in place across the four nations, but none were fit for purpose - each missing the standards, monitoring and targets needed to deliver sustained soil health. The 2014 proposed EU Soil Framework Directive – the traditional instrument for unlocking national policy and investment – was the only environmental Directive ever to have been rejected by EU governments.The continuing lack of a common policy framework for assessing the state of our soils has perpetuated a siloing of work, research, and a general lack of coordination among the various sectors involved in soil.

Recent opportunities for soil

Against this backdrop we began our efforts by loosely working from a ‘shopping list’ of areas where we felt governments were best placed to intercede formally – either through tangible policy intervention, financial investment, or leadership and collaboration. We organised these according to the four ‘drivers’ of soil health: measuring and monitoring against standards and targets; incentivisation for long-term improvement; regulation against degradation; and education, advice and guidance to support delivery of the above long-term.

Over this period, soil has come into the spotlight for a variety of reasons, and tangible progress has been both top down (national policy developments) and bottom up (the regenerative farming movement, food businesses, ecosystem markets). A veritable groundswell of interest now comes from a huge variety of organisations – science, policymakers, farmers, businesses, NGOs - increasingly even the investment community.

Differing approaches

This explosion of attention comes with a challenge, however. Each of these interests or sectors has their own language and terminology for soil - as well as differing objectives and outcomes. There is a risk of fragmentation, and a danger that all these efforts will not add up to the sum of their parts.

We believe that, while the stars are now aligning for soils in terms of public interest and political will, seizing this momentum will require these various stakeholders to unite, align and collaborate like never before. But this in turn depends on the promotion and availability of solid shared scientific foundations from which everybody can build.

But where to find these foundations? From the start, our efforts are hindered because we do not have agreed standards, or even agreed ways to measure the soil. From our experience meeting organisations from across the spectrum, and with the inherent variability of soil types across the landscape, it is obvious that there is often not even agreement on how to describe and group various soils using a universal system.

Under these circumstances, a particular land manager might define their land as being one soil type, while another might refer to the same land differently and imply that another soil type is present.  A farm adviser or scientist might decide to measure texture to quantify the soil type in the topsoil, but what happens if the texture varies at depth below 30 cm across a field, whilst the topsoil texture is constant? Does this matter when setting benchmarks, standards and targets?

The example of protecting and improving water in environmental policy 

To illustrate the challenge, we can look to the experience of another critical environmental indicator – water, whose EU directive (European Water Framework Directive - WFD) has developed ways to classify water bodies with standards, targets, monitoring and a well-funded programme to deliver improvement with a strong foundation of regulation.  Admittedly there is still a long way to go with improving water, but at least we have an agreed technical framework – and with it a direction of travel.

The WFD required extensive debate, deliberation and consultation. The process of conceptualising was vital, because it established consistent agreement about the language, concepts, science and metrics at stake, unlocking powers for the bodies responsible, policy development, and public understanding. This in turn opened the door not just to investment and political commitment but also to structure and rigour in how we monitor and care for our waterways, how we identify and address threats, and how we allocate responsibilities and duty of care.

It is evident that soil has not been through such a process – the same consistency of resources has not been applied, and there has not been the same coalescence around a common understanding. We are left with a lack of agreement around the basics, such as describing soil type, agreed methodologies for monitoring, parameters for setting standards, and targets for improvement. This cascades through industry and other parts of the community, and acts as a critical barrier to joined-up decision making, aggregation of data, and ultimately a sense of direction and common purpose.

The need for leadership and agreement from the scientific community to foster wider confidence and common purpose

It is not to say that we don’t measure our soils. In fact, throughout our existence we have seen one soil monitoring initiative after another – from governments, NGOs, businesses and research institutes – but each one carried out with different approaches to soil description, monitoring and interpretation. To make this even more complicated here in England, our national soil mapping which could underpin a common soil framework is mostly not in the public domain or open access.

It is not hard to imagine what all this means in practice. The all-important data from these important projects fails consistently to add up to a coherent whole or even a coherent conversation, with predictable and disappointing consequences for our overall understanding of soil health. 

The origins of this situation are clear - a vacuum where we need leadership, conflicts of interest where we need collaboration, compromise and alignment, but above all a failure (so far) to achieve consensus on a few core scientific principles.

It is widely accepted that soil health metrics vary according to soil type and we have ways to classify soils to take their diversity into account. What is missing is for these approaches to be co-ordinated within one agreed framework that shows how a small number of fit-for-purpose but different approaches to describing, grouping and mapping soils across the landscape fit together. This can then become the common reference point for soil initiatives – from monitoring right through to education. 

We believe there is now an urgent need for such a framework, one that applies metrics and benchmarks within a system that describes soils appropriately and simply and does not soak up the already limited resources available to soils work. A framework that everyone is signed up to, can access freely and fully, is clear and relatable, and can be used to its full potential in every soil initiative without hindrance from ownership issues or doubts about whether it is the right approach.

While this is ultimately a policy challenge, only the scientific community is capable of delivering it. Becauseonly the scientific community has the expertise to agree and ‘sign off’ the basic principles at stake.

As was noted at the Congress, right now we do not need soil scientists to dwell on the third decimal, we don’t want new evidence. Rather we want to know what it is, how to do it, and what it means – so that we can all be part of something that is moving forward and is built on solid foundations.

But how? Mandela said it’s always impossible until it’s done, in that spirit we hope this task will be grasped because it is critical for progress. It would give policymakers the tools to develop ambitious and impactful policies – against which they can be held to account. This in turn cascades through society and industry: it enables us to reassure farmers that they are measuring their soils for the right reasons – and that these measurements will help them identify practices that will improve both their soils and their yields; it is needed to engage the food industry to reflect soil health in the way they source their produce – and support farmers in their journey; it would enable new income streams to be unlocked for land managers to reflect the environmental improvement healthy soils can deliver; and finally, such a framework is needed to generate data to show the public the state of our soils, how this is changing over time – and why this is important – so they, in turn, can understand and value soils as the soil science community does.

Ellen Fay (SSA Founder & Executive Director), November 2022

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The SSA is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. We decided not to set up a charity because that would limit some activities such as campaigning on government policies. With a not-for-profit company the directors don’t benefit from profits and money raised is spent on company aims.