There is no overarching regulatory framework for soils – either UK-wide or specific to any of the four nations. Instead, soil management is governed by a wide variety of separate legislative instruments which impact on soils either directly or indirectly. These weren’t created with soil health specifically in mind and as such, do not address holistically the range of threats facing soil, or the services soils provide.
Up until recently, soil-relevant regulations, i.e. those levers that directly instruct farmers how to manage their soils - were designed largely to reflect the requirements of European policies (specifically the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)). They were implemented by the devolved governments using regionally specific policy instruments.
As a result of Brexit, these policies are currently undergoing a thorough review. Cross-compliance rules stand to fall once the UK leaves the CAP, while all four nations are in the process of developing their own farming regulation and national farm support schemes – many of them with environmental as well as productivity outcomes in mind.
For example, in England, the 8 Farming Rules for Water are currently subject to a review (2021) alongside a broader review of the regulatory and enforcement regime for farming which is due to be developed by 2024. At the same time, the Sustainable Farming Incentive is being rolled out – paying farmers for managing their land in an environmentally sustainable way – as a gateway to Environmental Land Management in 2024.
At the SSA, we call for all four nations to develop clear, robust regulatory frameworks to reflect soil health as follows:
- A dedicated soil-specific policy instrument, created with soil protection and improvement outcomes specifically in mind.
- Existing regulations to be widely and clearly communicated and policed, with a necessary level of investment committed to their enforcement.
- Farm support schemes to be used as a mechanism to achieve understanding of and compliance with the regulatory baseline.
- Awareness and understanding of soil-specific regulations to be improved among relevant stakeholders including farm advisory services, food supply chain players etc.
- Regulatory enforcement to be directed at the worst offenders, especially those businesses whose chemical emissions transported through soil damage streams, rivers and coastal waters through sedimentation and eutrophication.