May 1, 2018

Soils and the 25 Environment Plan

By Edward Baker (Waitrose CTP Student)


With increasing public and political significance, modern environmentalism has begun to distance itself from a Laissez-faire attitude around natural ecosystem management. The most recent addition of legislation and policy direction, the 25 Year Environmental Plan, attempts to address the pressures facing the UK’s natural ecosystems from anthropogenic disturbances.

Well documented and publicised environmental concerns such as the demand for clean air and water, increase of biodiversity, sustainable use of natural resources, and mitigation of climate change are acknowledged in the plan. Additionally, attention gained through TV programmes such as the BBC’s “Blue Planet”, has catapulted plastics into a prominent position.

Along with these noted issues, the forgotten link in the water, food and energy nexus, Soils, has started to develop momentum. Whilst not excessively highlighted in the plan, it’s inclusion is a significant step in realising the reliance we place on soils for food production and further ecological services. Initiatives surrounding soils discussed in the plan include the introduction of a replacement to the Common Agricultural Policy, changes to regulation on fertilisers and pesticides, and investment into the development of soil health.

Soils’ presence displays an increased collective awareness, though the details in the plan fails to provide meaningful solutions or address any ground actions, rather, it merely specifies future intentions. This has galvanised a variety of organisations to provide critical feedback and solutions to combat soil degradation. Below is a summary of the key opinions and attitudes surrounding the plan which arose during a workshop by the Soil Research Centre at the University of Reading.


Soil Health Index

The proposals to develop a Soil Health Index was met with a healthy amount of scepticism. Soils are a heterogeneous medium and variation can exist at both farm and regional scales. As such, the index must be adjustable to local conditions and be conveyed in a meaningful way as to not cause confusion, especially if being used in place of the Common Agricultural Policy payment scheme.

During the workshop, the other major concern voiced with constructing the index was the measurement of levels of depletion. A suggestion was given to base soil health indicators on local natural systems and observe how characteristics are altered given anthropogenic disturbances. Whatever the agreed protocol, it was established that any decision must be rapidly mapped and implemented for the index to progress.


Guidance for Improving Soil Health

Alongside the Soil Health Index, it was realised that a new set of management practises and guidelines would be indispensable. Management practises including; mixed farming (or linking arable and livestock farms), cover cropping and effective crop rotation, were among those suggested to improve Soil Health. The idea of promoting sustainable management techniques overcomes the issues discussed on soil heterogeneity and defining its health status.

Therefore, education and training will be important in providing such guidance on management and soil health. A flexible, multi-institute, farmer led, local system which interlocks with existing schemes would provide an invaluable tool to encourage this. However, it is beyond farmers that we must look to protect our soils. Commercial demands led to intensification of farming practises creating an unsustainable environment. Without providing information to the consumer and retailer, it is unlikely that a soil health initiative, whether index or management based, would be able to combat financial pressures.


Public Money for Public Goods

With a resounding response, the group agreed that rejuvenation and improvement of our soils health is likely to be a long-term objective, much greater than 25 years. Supporting sustainable management practises over short term improvements was deemed essential to achieve targeted soil replenishment. This could be encouraged by providing financial benefits for maintenance of good soil health or practises which is likely to encourage risk adverse farmers to favour innovative and beneficial practises.

The idea behind funding such maintenance is that the benefits felt from improving Soil Health ranges beyond the farm owner. Public goods such as; carbon sequestration, clean water, and increased biodiversity amongst others, would benefit the whole of society.


Education and Outreach

It was observed as a whole that the plan places emphasis on farmers managing soils sustainably and making the most of natural capital. However, realities are that consumers and supermarkets drive production rates and in turn increase soil degradation. The increasingly urbanised public are disconnected from the land. Without conscious purchasing and public education, these trends are likely to continue. Whilst the Plan does attempt to bridge this divide through education, there are missed opportunities.

Furthermore, encouraging younger generations to become engaged in nature would be a positive step forward, however, the group noted that this education needs to be linked with the farming community not just curtailed to nature reserves. The direction for education should also extend past pre-school. There should be backing for young and experienced farmers to cooperate both within the farming community and externally with researchers. This increase in cooperation will possibly create a society where the burden of sustainably managing our soils is not placed solely on the backs of farmers.


Closing Thoughts

The plan published is a strong statement of intent from the government to drive our society to be more environmentally conscious. The protection of our soils from degradation has started to be addressed, however, due to their rapid depletion rates, it is questionable whether this is enough. The development of a Soil Health Index may be able to replace and improve upon the existing CAP programme. Whether it would be better to focus on positive management practises considering the variable nature of soils and the timescales associated with improving soil properties is a question for government. In the eyes of the group, this system seemed more productive at improving the health of our soils. This idea supports movement away from short term gains at the expense of the natural ecosystems and considers a more holistic view.

One key and clear message is that farmers are the custodians for our soils. Support ranging from financial incentives to education is necessary to allow for them to sustainably manage the natural ecosystems they cultivate. Without such backing it will be impossible to compete with market drivers and demands and we may see the decline of our prestigious countryside.