Environment Bill must put soil management at its heart

“Although it is fearfully short on detail, the 25 Year Environment Plan says that England’s soils must be sustainably managed by 2030.” Green peer Natalie Bennett analyses the Government’s approach to protecting the UK’s soil through the Environment Bill.

Natalie Bennett

Each year, the UK loses more than three million tonnes of topsoil – soil washed off hillsides that have been logged for timber. It is soil that is tugged up from rich arable landscapes with the sugar beet plants to which it clings. But above all it is swept away by water and wind after being left bare by current farming practices. Two million hectares are at risk in England and Wales.

Soil is also degraded in the UK, even while it remains in situ. In England and Wales, almost four million hectares are at risk of compaction – life and air squashed out of it – mostly from the passage of heavy farm machinery.

Soil can also be contaminated through dangerous, damaging substances being swept, blown or landing on it, or sadly, sometimes deliberately placed on it, through error or fraud. We are just beginning to understand how all of it is being damaged by microplastic pollution, in all of our waters and all of our air. Figures for that are far less certain, but the issue certainly affects hundreds of thousands of hectares.

Soils too are stores of carbon – or they should be. Instead our peatlands are in a disastrous state, and we lack the tree cover and meadows that should be providing this service, as well as being a haven for wildlife in this dreadfully nature-depleted land. 

The Government, in some quarters at least, recognises the scale of the issue. The 25 Year Environment Plan – supposedly the big set piece document explaining what the government intends to do about the many pressing issues of our day – although it is fearfully short on detail, says that England’s soils must be sustainably managed by 2030.

Just to drive home the urgency, I have to highlight the fact that is little more than eight years away. In terms of farming practice, with farmers today buying machinery they’ll expect to use for many years, trees taking many years to reach any sort of size or impact, food manufacturers making investments on the assumption of what crops will be available to them, that is no time at all.

After a lot of wrestling in the House of Lords, the Agriculture Act, as it now is, contained direct reference to soil management at its heart. But the Environment Bill – the sister legislation – as it comes before the House of Lords today, does not.

In identifying priority areas in the Bill, there is air and water, but no listing for the third foundation of life on Earth. In our initial detailed debate, I put in a bid to include that missing priority area.

For the Government, however, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond was dismissive. One response was that ‘the Bill gives us the power to set legally-binding long-term targets on any aspect of the natural environment’.

Yes. Any Secretary of State could set a target at any time. But given that there are scant eight years to reach the government’s own aim for 2030 sustainable management, why wait? Would a ‘world-leading’ government wait (as the Government so often tells us it wants to be)? 

The second response from Lord Goldsmith was that there was not enough information and knowledge about soils to know what the targets should be. I acknowledged we are dreadfully short on information on soils, a result of the failure to fund independent agricultural research and extension over decades, the outsourcing of it to the agrochemical companies that have advocated highly profitable (for them) practices that have had such disastrous impacts on soil health and quality. 

But then the minister contradicted himself: “Developing targets is an iterative process,” he said, meaning something developed, evolved and finessed over time – in other words we could set targets then refine and improve them.

What’s clear is the Bill as it stands is a two-legged stool – an innately unstable, unbalanced structure, missing a crucial element. As the crossbench (non-party) Earl of Devon said in the committee debate, soil ‘warrants its own independent priority status”, for without that “we are at risk of giving it permanently second-tier status’. Labour’s Baroness Jones of Whitchurch said ‘action is absolutely necessary’.

This is not a party political issue. Several other crossbench peers backed including a soil target in the Bill in the debate at committee, including Lord Curry of Kirkharle, former chair of NFU Mutual. He, along with the Conservative Lord Randall of Uxbridge and Labour’s Lord Whitty, has signed an amendment I tabled to insert that crucial third leg in today’s debate. 

This is a Bill that needs many improvements: the strengthening of the Office of Environmental Protection, ensuring that environmental principles operate right across government, tightening up air pollution requirements and – as I and many other peers are hearing from many members of the public – reining in the water companies to stop them treating our rivers and seas as dumping grounds. The Green Party has a petition calling for those improvements. 

But making soils a priority area has to be in this list too, if we’re going to be able to grow our food, cultivate our natural world, and store the carbon we must in the coming years and decades. 

The Government, having dilly-dallied for years on delivering this crucial legislation is sure to be trying to rush the Lords to wave the Bill through in the next two weeks, to say ‘but as chair of the COP climate talks it would be embarrassing not to have the law in place’. Yes, but how much worse not to have the right framework to deliver the restoration essential to deliver a healthy, flourishing land for us all, a failure set out for all the world to see as the Glasgow talks begin.