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Sustainable Soils and the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan: Observations and Conclusions


On March 13 2018, politicians, NGOs, businesses, academics and other stakeholders convened in Portcullis House at an event hosted by Rebecca Pow MP and the Sustainable Soils Alliance to discuss the government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment and its impact on soils. During the event the measurement, monitoring and economics of soils were discussed as well as the steps needed to unlock the innovation, collaboration and investment needed by farmers and others to manage them sustainably for the next generation and beyond.

Observations and conclusions from the event are as follows:

1. Soil is high on the government agenda

The contribution of Farming Minister George Eustice at our event so soon after Secretary of State, Michael Gove, spoke at our October launch shows the government’s commitment to the soils issue. The engagement of other parliamentary heavyweights either chairing the event (Zac Goldsmith MP), attending (Neil Parrish MP) or sending words of support (Therese Coffey MP and Caroline Lucas MP) confirms SSA champion and DEFRA PPS, Rebecca Pow MP’s observations that: ‘Soil might not be sexy, but it’s certainly under the spotlight now’.

2. Farmers value their soil

George Eustice described the tension between farmers and NGO as a ‘false antagonism’, adding that everyone understands the value of healthy soils. He laid out a vision of sustainable farming that combined traditional methods of soil husbandry with the best science and technology available. The growing evidence of farmer interest in their soil was highlighted by Vicki Hird (Sustain) and by Mark Pope (NFU) who had witnessed a ‘revolution’ in soil awareness and the increased adoption of techniques like minimum tillage and cover cropping.

3. But farmers face challenges

Mark Pope called for a flexible (rather than one size fits all) policy approach to soil management – a point that was re-enforced by Richard Laverick (AHDB) when explaining that there were approximately 750 different soil types. It was the complexity of both the biology and the chemistry of soils that led to confusion among farmers – and where investment in education was needed. Ben Raskin (Soil Association) pointed to other root causes of soil mismanagement by farmers: tight margins that encourage specialisation over diversity, short tenancies that dis-incentivise investment and a knowledge gap between what farmers want to achieve and how to achieve it.

4. There are financial tools for incentivising change

Guy Thompson (EnTrade, Wessex Water) used the example of his company’s Poole Harbour water catchment scheme to demonstrate the impact of a market-based approach to soil management - giving farmers access to private and public finance in exchange for eco-system services such as nitrate savings. Mark Pope also favoured a business to business approach that complements commercial and government incentives - alongside existing agri-environment schemes and grants for techniques such as minimum tillage.

5. But the power of the markets needs to be unleashed

Soil is – or could be big business. Craig Sams (Carbon Gold) explained that a commodity market for certified carbon could exceed a trillion pounds per year, and suggested financially rewarding farmers for its sequestration. Andrew Voysey (Institute for Sustainable Leadership) called for a full systems map demonstrating how money and soil interface – making use of big data and public science to inform investor risk analysis and even a green bank or sovereign green bond to showcase commercial opportunities from investing in soil.

6. Is a Soil Act the answer?

Philip Lymbery (Compassion in World Farming) commended the 25 Year Plan’s intention but questioned if it had teeth. He called for a Nationwide soil recovery programme, underpinned by legislation, while Tony Juniper (WWF) also called for a new Act of Parliament, legislating soil restoration in a similar manner to air and water quality, the other pillars of a healthy environment. Zac Goldsmith MP said he was ‘agitating’ for such an Act and called on those in the room to support him.

7. It all starts with monitoring

Monitoring is the logical starting point for any soils policy, and Dr Liz Stockdale (NIAB) called for a double pronged approach; one that engages individual farmers and encourages them to monitor physical condition and organic matter alongside their existing nutrient management indicators and another, government-led approach providing a statistically robust, nationwide picture. Ben Raskin also highlighted the importance of improved monitoring, but emphasised that the tools and knowledge needed to start this process were already in place, on which point Dr Kevin Austin (Environment Agency) highlighted the use of drones and social media already underway in farm monitoring and communication.

8. Innovation (and data) is key

Peter Head (Ecological Sequestration Trust) pointed to the important role of scientific innovation and major advances in available soil data thanks to satellites, sensors and mobile phones as well as in modelling and simulation techniques. He championed the opportunities for the UK taking a lead in driving this innovation. Mark Pope also highlighted the importance of good data for farmers both in measuring environmental progress and productivity levels and welcomed references to it in the 25 Year Plan.

9. As is collaboration...

In highlighting the importance of collaboration, Peter Head addressed the lack of connection between science, decision making, agriculture and community, a point echoed by Vicki Hird. She called for increased funding to support farmer-to-farmer interaction, to link farmers with business advice and with available research funds. To this point, Richard Laverick referenced the AHDB’s Great Soils soil management R&D programme, while Arlin Rickard (The Rivers Trust) highlighted his organisation’s catchments-based approach and support for farmers in implementing new rules for water.

10. particular with the Supply Chain

Dr Austin was one of many voices calling for an increased role for the whole supply chain in the issue of soils, especially retailers and processors who needed to reflect the importance of soil in their assurance schemes. Duncan Rawson (EFFP) added that food companies had both a key role and the resources as buyers to drive change and gave the examples of Kellogg’s and Nestle who promoted soil management schemes in their supply chain. Vicki Hird called for greater supply chain transparency and regulation and for an extension of the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator to enforce it.

11. ...and the general public

Duncan Rawson pointed out that the work food companies were doing had as much to do with supply chain integrity – their brand value in the eyes of the public. To this point Sue Pritchard (RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission) pointed out that it was hard for politicians to be bold on any initiative if they don’t know they were bringing people with them. This was a core part of the rationale for the Commission’s work to change behaviours among farmers, and simultaneously explain to citizens why this matters.

12. Final Call to Arms

Which brings us to the event’s ‘call to arms’ from Tim Smit (co-Founder of the Eden Project) who urged attendees to rise above their vested interests and to start to act as citizens not consumers with vision of stewardship with a duty to the future.