Environmental Land Management and Soil

Environmental Land Management (ELM) is the scheme proposed by the government to replace the current EU Common Agricultural Policy Basic Payment Scheme. It aims to balance food production with the incentivising of farmers and land managers to help deliver the six 25 Year Environment Plan goals. These are: clean and plentiful water, clean air, thriving plants and wildlife, reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment.

Healthy soil is critical for achieving most if not all of the goals listed above. Indeed, soil has been described as the ‘golden thread’ that runs through ELM. From the very beginning Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has stated that public money should reward people who look after their soil, especially those farmers who build soil carbon.

The current framing of the policy contradicts this however. While healthy soil is considered to be a natural asset from which public goods can flow, it is not considered a public good in and of itself, and therefore not a beneficiary – or an environmental outcome - that is eligible for direct investment. As an‘asset’, it is also owned, e.g. by a farmer, meaning public money cannot be allocated to it.

We consider this approach to be both short-sighted and counter-productive. 80% of the costs associated with degraded soils – carbon and biodiversity loss, flood damage, etc., occur off-site and so are either invisible or of limited concern to those whose actions may be causing them. This ‘disconnect’ between the way soils are used and the broader consequences for society and the economy represents a market failure and failure of soil governance, and therefore justification for government intervention. ELM, alongside an effective regulatory baseline could act as a critical tool to correct this failure, to measure and demonstrate soil’s public and private impact and as a mechanism to align incentives accordingly. The core ambition should be an increase in soil organic matter which has widespread benefits for soil health. This could be achieved by incentivising practices such as cover crops, herb-rich leys, legumes etc - with different targets and time frames for particularly degraded soils.

To support this, soil metrics should be developed to measure outcomes. These metrics need to be simple, practical and carried out by farmers - a mixture of visual assessment and traditional soil analysis.

The practicalities of the ELM scheme including questions about the delivery mechanism, who carries out evaluation, monitoring and assessment are still under consideration, and being evaluated as a series of ‘tests and trials’ alongside government agencies, civil society groups and the farming industry. The scheme is due to be in place sometime after 2022.

At the SSA, we have submitted alongside partners our own tests and trials showcasing new, innovative approaches to soil management. In addition, as ELM continues its evolution, we will:

  • Continue to make the case for healthy soil as a public good in its own right by highlighting the range of public goods it provides, the societal costs of soil degradation and the lack of alignment between impact and incentivisation

  • Evaluate the outcomes and learnings from all ELM trials as they relate to soil

  • Analyse and understand the impact of other critical factors – e.g. the impact of short land tenancies, the role of the supply chain

  • Contribute to the political and technical debates on the development of on-farm soil monitoring methods and indicators

We submitted a parliamentary question in June 2019 requesting further clarification on whether soil would be considered a public good and therefore eligible for public money. Read our question in full and the response from Farming Minister Robert Goodwill below.



1. Proposal/Idea

Submitted by Yeo Valley Farms Ltd, Rhodyate, Blagdon, Bristol, BS40 7YE

on 29/03/2019

2. Proposal/Idea

Submitted by Elizabeth Stockdale, NIAB

Working with the AHDB-BBRO Soil Biology and Soil Health Research Partnership, the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA) and UK Soil Health initiative (UKSHi, now aligned with CFE)