House of Commons inquiry into soil health - the Cinderella of natural resources

Professor Bridget Emmett is the lead for Soil research at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. She was appointed as the specialist adviser to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Inquiry on Soil Health which ran from March to May 2016. Her role was to provide assistance and feedback to the Committee team in its preparation of background briefs and the inquiry report, and provide general ad hoc advice to the Committee and its staff on matters relating to the inquiry. Bridget explains more about the inquiry below:

Microscopic life in soil

In December 2015, MPs on the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) launched an inquiry into how soil health can be better measured and managed. The Inquiry was triggered by concerns that soil degradation was impacting on agricultural production with wider detrimental impacts on water quality and biodiversity despite the publication of a Soils Strategy by Defra in 2009. Concern was further raised due to the collapse of the long-tabled Soil Framework Directive by the European Commission.

Submissions on the following issues were requested and 78 responses were received from a wide range of organisations and individuals from the farming, conservation, environmental and academic communities across the UK:

  • How soil health should be measured, monitored and tracked
  • The benefits of soil for society
  • The consequences of failing to protect soil for the environment, public health and food security
  • Existing soil protection measures and further measures that DEFRA should consider
  • The role of soil in the government’s upcoming 25-year plan for the natural environment

The submissions the EAC received highlighted that soil, water, biodiversity and air are all essential to human life and society—but of these four, soil was often the forgotten component, ie the ‘Cinderella’ of our natural resources. Contributors described soil as crucial to agricultural production, climate change mitigation and adaptation, urban development, and flood risk management. It is home to a quarter of earth’s biodiversity (Figure 1) and grows slowly, taking around 100 years to grow 1cm of topsoil.

Any losses are therefore hard to replace. UK soils are relatively young, having been formed around 10,000 years ago after the last ice age. Neglecting the health of our soil could lead to reduced food security, increased greenhouse gas emissions, greater flood risk, and damage to public health.

...Soil, water, biodiversity and air are all essential to human life and society—but of these four, soil is often the forgotten component, the ‘Cinderella’ of our natural resources.

Lead concentrations in topsoil in Countryside Survey 2007
Figure 2: Lead concentrations in topsoil in 2007 from Countryside Survey

Some statistics the Committee heard included:

  • Soil degradation is estimated to cost £0.9 - £1.4 billion per year, of which 80% is experienced away from the farm
  • 84% loss of peatlands in East Anglia, which is some of our most high quality agriculture land
  • Soil is home to a quarter of the earth’s biodiversity
  • 11% loss of soil organic carbon in our arable soils over the last 30 years which will impact on long-term yields and resilience to extreme weather and erosion
  • 5% of England's rivers and lakes are impacted by sedimentation and 14% of flood events linked to farm runoff
  • In 2005 it was estimated that 325,000 sites in the UK are affected by some degree of contamination, covering an area of 300,000 hectares (Figure 2)
  • A statistically significant relationship between self-reported poor health and brownfield sites has been reported even when controlling for socio-economic factors
  • No UK soil monitoring programme is currently active. The last reporting of soil condition was in 2007 by Countryside Survey

Contributors described soil as crucial to agricultural production, climate change mitigation and adaptation, urban development, and flood risk management. It is home to a quarter of earth’s biodiversity and grows slowly, taking around 100 years to grow 1cm of topsoil. Any losses are therefore hard to replace.

Defra’s key lever for ensuring protection of soil health is the cross-compliance rules for Rural Payments Agency payments. These rules, revised in 2015, require that those in receipt of payments keep their land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC). There have been no breaches of cross-compliance for loss of soil organic matter since 2015, suggesting the policing of current policies is not working even though this control policy was described to the Committee by one witness as a "damage limitation policy at best".

More proactive approaches in Wales were described to the Committee which went beyond protection measures to incentives to farmers to improve soil health.

In response to this evidence, the Committee made the following recommendations in their report to Defra:

  • Identify funding for identification and remediation of contaminated land
  • Identify and police action to prevent loss and increase soil organic carbon to meet international commitments such as the ‘4 per mille’ initiative the UK signed at the recent Climate change conference in Paris (COP21).
  • Take tougher action to tackle land use practices which degrade peat, accelerate the peatland restoration programme and put in place measurable and time-bound actions to first halt and then reverse peatland degradation while minimising the impact on agricultural capacity (figure 3 below).
  • Renewable energy subsidies for anaerobic digestion should be restructured to avoid harmful unintended consequences. Revisions should either exclude maize from the subsidy altogether or impose strict conditions on subsidised maize production to avoid practices in high-risk locations which lead to soil damage.
  • Commission a national monitoring scheme to ensure soil health is regularly assessed . The scheme should ensure coverage of land which has previously reported as undergoing degradation and include a suitable range of indicators to assess the provision of ecosystems services.

Peatland degradation
Figure 3: Peatland degradation

Since these findings were published in May 2016, a Westminster Hall debate initiated by the Committee has continued the call for action to better protect and improve soil health and a response by the government has been published.

CEH continues to work with the soils research community to provide robust evidence of ongoing change in soil health, the wider implications of these changes, and practical solutions which can be exploited by government and land managers to improve and protect this valuable resource.

Prof Bridget Emmett

CEH Soil Science

Staff page of Prof Bridget Emmett

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee

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