MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee have heard calls for stronger legislation and more realistic ELM scheme payment rates to protect soil health.
Soil scientist Bridget Emmett of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology told the committee’s first hearing in its soil health inquiry that soil ‘falls through the cracks’ when it came to regulations, with ‘no real regulatory framework’ to protect it.
“It’s the Cinderella of natural resources,” she said. “We all welcome the focus on soil in the Sustainable Farming Incentive, but we need it better protected and regulated in an overarching soil strategy that has teeth to make sure there is a baseline for what everyone has to do.”
Martin Ballard, group head of environment at the Society for the Environment, said primary legislation on soils was ‘absolutely needed’. “The fact that we have not focused on soil in a consistent collective manner has led us to this disparate position of failed soil health,” he said.
The committee heard there had been no data on the condition of England’s soils since 2007 and that although a new monitoring programme was due to start this year it would be another five years before there was any ‘baseline’ data against which improvements resulting from changes to soil management practices could be measured. Meanwhile, there were already signs that soils were becoming compacted, eroded and losing carbon, thus contributing to climate change.
Matthew Orman, executive director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, said it was currently hard to see whether ELMs was having any impact on soil health because of a lack of consistent data being collected, and shared at government level.
He also said there were questions about payment rates. “It has been very unclear exactly how the [payment rates] for the soil standards were reached, because these do not reflect either the environmental costs of degraded soils or the costs required for implementing the changes needed and performing the actions needed to meet the standards,” he said.
“I urge this committee to put pressure on the government to be more transparent about how these numbers are reached and how they can evolve over time.”
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