Graeme Willis, Senior Rural Policy Campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) explains why soil has long been a Cinderella issue of environmental policy in the UK
Amid the general political turmoil, one government department, in particular, has been energised by the repatriation of policy in anticipation of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) and the consequential removal of the constraints of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). With Michael Gove at its helm, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has taken significant steps to put in place new agricultural legislation and policy and a government 25 Year Environment Plan. Together, these will drive the transformation of how public money is invested in land management and should reward production that is harmonised with restoring the natural environment to health. A National Peat Strategy for England and an Environment Bill are also anticipated.
Of course, one caveat is that much of this policy is embryonic: it’s too early to say whether it can deliver on its aspirations and, crucially, whether HM Treasury will fund it to do so. But this policy constellation gives us hope in many areas, and especially in one unexpected bright spot that is the extra attention given to healthy soils. Soil has long been a Cinderella issue of environmental policy.
For instance, there are established EU Directives on water, air and noise but on soils, a proposal could not be agreed and was abandoned. Despite the exceptional importance of healthy soils to UK food supply and a growing understanding of how they underpin a host of other environmental services – clean water, flood management, biodiversity, carbon storage – there has been a distinct lack of policy targeted directly at tackling soil issues.
The need to act should not be doubted. Evidence of the problems soils face and the costs this places on farmers, the environment and society are well known – and acknowledged by the government. One-third of all UK soils are degraded and a third of all arable soils at risk of erosion. Of our peatland – 1.4 million hectares in England alone – just 1% is undamaged. Peat soils in the East Anglian Fens, some of the most productive farmland, are losing soil at 1-2 cm per annum and could be lost as rich organic soils within a couple of decades. The costs of this degradation to society have been estimated at £1.2 billion a year.
Nearly £600 million of this relates to greenhouse gas emissions alone. And significant functions of soil and their depletion are missing from this analysis, so the avoidable costs may be much greater. Despite this, since the turn of the century, the government has failed to extensively and routinely sample soils and to develop the much-needed understanding of their status. Policies to halt their degradation and to support good stewardship and make it pay have faltered as a consequence.
If the need to act on land and soil management is now well established, the desperate urgency of action has been very recently emphasised. Few will have missed the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in October 2018, on the need to drive down greenhouse gas emissions well before 2030. They call for deep emissions cuts and far-reaching transitions in all sectors, especially land use. The Royal Society and the Committee for Climate Change have echoed this by calling for immediate action to ramp up sequestration of carbon in soils. The Royal Society argues this is immediately doable, scalable and that UK soils could store up to 31 MtCO2 pa for the critical decades ahead.
The new Foresight Food and Farming Report from CPRE grapples with these many and compelling issue from the starting point of soils, the threats they face and why we should care. From there, its focus is to explore promising and primarily farm-based approaches which could help drive the transformation of land management needed to cut soil degradation and regenerate soils to a healthier state: conservation agriculture, agroforestry, pasture-based farming and wet peat farming or paludiculture.
These approaches, scaled up, could deliver multiple benefits we need from a repurposed countryside, and not least but not only to address the existential threat of climate change. They offer the potential for productive, profitable and more resilient farming, more diverse systems that can work with and restore nature, more varied landscapes, and new products and possibilities for restored peatlands. In so doing, they also offer a pathway that can make sense to the farmers and land managers who are being called upon to deliver on ambitious environmental goals while running a business and making a rewarding living.
Tackling climate change is imperative and looking after soils better as part of the answer is gaining support. The report closes with recommendations for the government to bring forward policies to build on progress in 2018. These must put the proper valuation of soils and what they do for us, halting soil degradation, regenerating soils and sustainable low carbon farming at the heart of the government’s plans for farming and the countryside it stewards.
Senior Rural Policy Campaigner
Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)
Tel: +44 (0)20 7981 2800
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