Twitter LinkedIn

Soil is as important as air and water

June 2016

We are dependent on healthy soils. Our soils are not only valuable for growing the food we eat; soil quality impacts on our ability to reduce climate change and can also be an important factor in flood management and the quality of our water. We need to take the health of our soils as importantly as we take our air and water quality.

A Parliamentary Committee has published its findings into the Government's approach to tackling a national problem – that our soils are becoming increasingly unhealthy.

We need to take the health of our soils as importantly as we take our air and water quality. Yet 2.2 million tonnes of soil are eroded each year in the UK. It was estimated in 2011 that the cost of soil degradation in England and Wales is between £0.9 billion and £1.4 billion per year. Inappropriate soil management could cause a serious negative impact on soil fertility and the ability of some of our most agriculturally valuable land to continue current levels of productivity.

Soil is a huge store of carbon, but if degraded it can be a major source of carbon back in the atmosphere. The UK’s peatlands store around 40% of our soil carbon yet degraded peat which has been intensively managed or burnt too regularly releases this carbon. Runoff from degraded peat soils also negatively affects water quality and water companies spend a huge amount cleaning it up.

The Government has signed up to an international initiative to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year, but it is far from achieving the target. The report calls for Government to:

  • Take tougher action to tackle land use practices which degrade peat, such as unnecessary burning and draining when crops are absent
  • Step up its peatland restoration programme
  • Be clear on how it will halt and reverse peatland degradation.

Farmers are required by law to manage their soils to a minimum standard. Yet this minimum is not enough to stop damaging soil erosion or overall decreased soil health. The Committee’s report agrees. Inspection rates usually come too late with damage already having been made before it has been picked up. Soils are part of the whole system and really need to be considered as indispensable as the air we breathe and the water we drink, yet we don’t have a systematic way of determining the health of our soils in the way we do with air and water. How can we farm our soils sustainably if we aren’t properly looking at how we’re managing them? A national monitoring scheme was recommended to Government back in 1996 and yet Government continues to avoid taking responsibility . The report suggests we could put in place such a scheme affordably with significant benefits.

The report asks Government to:

  • Increase the ambition, scope and effectiveness of the minimum standards
  • Incentivise landowners to restore and improve soil quality and organic matter, and not merely a 'damage limitation' approach
  • Ensure that measures to improve agricultural production or reduce burdens on farmers do not lead to compromise on soil health
  • Establish a national programme to monitor soil health
  • Take a more joined up approach to ensure that priorities align.

None of these recommendations are new—WWT and other organisations have been calling for such action for many years—but the Committee’s report should bring about a new sense of urgency. If the Government is serious about leaving the environment in a better condition, then proper monitoring and management of soil condition needs to begin now.

Hannah Freeman

Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust on Twitter @WWTWorldwide

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership