‘Perilous position’: Government commits to soil health action plan

The government is set to publish a soil health action plan for England (SHAPE) to bring soil health back from its “perilous position”.

Photograph: Javier Román/Getty Images Photograph: Javier Román/Getty Images

The plan was announced on Wednesday by environment minister Lord Goldsmith during debate in the House of Lords, but it failed to stop the government’s defeat on an amendment vote which would introduce a bespoke soil health target in the Environment Bill. 

SHAPE has been welcomed by the Soil Association charity, who have hailed the news as making this “a big week for soil”, but insist that it will amount to “hollow words” if the House of Commons do not also carry forward the Lords’ amendment on soil health.

READ MORE: Environment Bill: The 7 government defeats in the Lords

Commenting on the announcement, Louise Payton, the Soil Association’s farming and land use policy officer said that for too long soil had been “sorely neglected in plans to tackle our environment crisis”, and had been overshadowed by other environmental assets such as water, air quality and “even biodiversity”. 

“Soils have been referred to as the ‘Cinderella of the natural world’”, said Payton, as they work “busily away, out of view, dirty, unloved and neglected”. 

She added that now “it looks like things are changing”, but nonetheless warned that the action plan must not be “a half-hearted one”.

While there are few details yet about SHAPE, speaking to the House of Lords, Lord Goldsmith said that it would be “a key plank in our efforts to halt the decline of species by 2030, as well as meeting our long-term legally binding targets on biodiversity”. 

When arguing against the Lords’ amendment on soil targets earlier this week, Lord Goldsmith said that although England’s soils are in a “perilous position”, if the government committed in the bill to setting a target by 2022, “without the reliable metrics needed” then it “could be committing to doing something that ultimately we cannot deliver or might not even know whether we have delivered it”.

Arguing back, Baroness Bennett - who had tabled the amendment - said that making soils “a second-order issue” was to put it in “profoundly the wrong place”.

DEFRA has confirmed that more information will be made available shortly, with a plan to consult on the draft outline in Spring 2022.

In 2019, the Environment Agency released a report saying that soils were ‘“under serious threat”, with around six million hectares of soil in England and Wales at risk from compaction and erosion, and arable soils are losing up to 60% of their organic carbon.

In July, environment secretary George Eustice, highlighted soil as being the first focus of the Sustainable Farming Incentive - the most basic tier of the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS). Eustice announced that farmers taking part will be able to earn between £26 - £70 per hectare for actions to improve the health of their soil.

According to the Soil Association, no clear figure exists for the health of the UK’s soils, but a 2020 review estimated that only 30-40% of Europe’s soils are healthy.

In a new report out today from the charity, it says that in 2013, soil carbon loss was estimated to amount to 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, higher than for many industrial and energy sources combined.

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