Urgent call for government to invest in healthy soils post-Brexit
Sustainable Soils Alliance unites for flood prevention, biodiversity, food production and carbon sequestration
Healthy Soils must be included in the environmental services that benefit from public funds after Brexit and can’t be left to individual farmers to manage, a panel of experts from farming, business and academia have told attendees at a Parliamentary event hosted on 18 March by Rebecca Pow MP (Taunton Deane) and the
Sustainable Soils Alliance.
The event The Economics of Soil: Private Asset or Public Good? examined how soil sits on the balance sheet of the farmer (through input costs and losses in productivity) and society (through climate change targets, flood risk management, biodiversity loss and food security).
• Degraded soil represents a significant cost to farmers, but a far greater one to society as a whole – through increasing flood risk, food insecurity, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.
• 80% of costs associated with degraded soils occur off-site and so are either invisible or of limited concern to those whose actions may be causing them.
• The government has a target of sustainably managed soils by 2030, but neither the Agriculture Bill nor the Environment Bills give soil health the tangible commitment it needs.
• Business has a critical role to play in promoting soil health – but only government investment can drive the necessary change at scale.
• Government Ministers Liz Truss and Greg Clark and the Chair of the Environment Agency are among the speakers at the event.
Amongst the speakers was Professor Joe Morris of Cranfield University, co-author of one of the seminal publications on the subject, The total costs of soil degradation in England and Wales. He explained: “Quantifiable soil degradation costs from erosion, compaction and carbon loss in England and Wales add up to over £1.4 bn per year – and yet these costs are not always apparent to those people who are, often inadvertently, causing them. This disconnect represents a fundamental failure of the market and soil governance and is a clear justification for government intervention and investment.”
Host of the event and Champion of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, MP for Taunton Deane Rebecca Pow, echoed the call for soil’s economic value to be better understood: “In last week’s Spring Statement, the Chancellor recognised for the first time the link between the decline in biodiversity and the UK economy, something that I have been pressing for for some time. Healthy soils are a vital source of biodiversity, alongside other environmental benefits, and so the next important step is to realise their economic value and the cost to the economy of not caring for them. Soil degradation in
England and Wales currently costs us £1.4bn per year and this must be addressed. This event is an important step in progressing this issue.”
Dr Toby Willison, Executive Director, Environment Agency added:
“We depend far more on soils than we appreciate. Soils sustain food production, support habitats, reduce flood risk and hold a huge biodiversity resource. We need to all work together to better preserve and enhance this invaluable resource.”
Sue Pritchard, Director of The RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission, addressed the question of how to establish a value for soil health that might be applied across government: “Whilst there is clearly increasing appreciation and welcome agreement about the value of soils and soil health, there is nonetheless a risk that practical action will become lost in debates between different
departments’ policy priorities. The Public Value Framework is a potential route through to focus on getting something done – and quickly.”
This subject was taken up by Professor Chris Collins, Chair of the SSA Science Panel, who considered soil in the context of post-Brexit agro-environmental policy making: “There are passing references to soil in the 25 Year Plan for the Environment and the draft Environment and Agriculture Bills, but not the concrete commitment in terms of targets, action or investment that is so badly needed – especially when compared with other environmental indicators, air and water. We are in a catch 22, we do not know the true value of our soil and so do not regulate it, if we did regulate it would be
valued. A firm commitment to sustainable soil management by 2030 as in the 25YEP needs teeth so we get the regulation to value our soils and reverse their degradation.’’
Stephen Briggs, Cambridgeshire farmer and Head of Soil & Water at Innovation for Agriculture spoke on the importance of engaging farmers as part of this process: “Farmers understand their own soils better than anyone, but even they need support, encouragement and
incentivisation to manage their soils using practises that improve rather than degrade soils.”
Guy Thompson, managing director of EnTrade, said: “Soil health needs to be seen as an essential public good and therefore the public and private sector need to collaborate and work directly with each other and farmers to nurture resilient, multi-functional and productive soils. For too long we have worked in silos, leaving farmers without the support and funding they need to do the right thing. We’ve proved that collaboration and incentivisation works well for other
environmental measures and soil should not be any different.”
Andrew Voysey, Head of Business & Government Solutions at Soil Capital, addressed the need to extend responsibility for soil health beyond the farmer to both the government and private sector. “We know from our experience that improving soil health in the right way actually increases farm profitability from the outset. Yet farmers face a web of influences that act against transitioning to practices that regenerate the soil. To achieve needed change in agriculture, brands that buy, banks that finance and governments that incentivise have a clear self-interest in acting together to make the superior
economics of regenerating soil the new normal.”
Finally, an update on how soil health has risen up the global business agenda was given by Dr Jess Davies, Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University and lead editor of a landmark report on The Business Case for Investing in Soil Health.
“Our report demonstrates that businesses the world over recognise the importance and urgency of investing in soil health – whether it’s for boosting climate resilience or meeting climate commitments,
reducing water risks and protecting biodiversity, or supporting livelihoods in the value chain. Increasingly businesses are ready to play their part, but successful investment in soil health needs partnership across sectors. There are examples emerging of new blended financing options that aim to deliver sustainable soil
management such as the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund spearheaded by the UNCCD, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Governments of France, Luxembourg and Norway. It’s critical that private and public
sectors work together to bring investment to scale.