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Soil Carbon

Volume 615: debated on Thursday 13 October 2016

Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and I am proud that that was in our manifesto. The Government are pleased to be supporting the COP21 Paris initiative to which the hon. Lady refers to promote a 0.4% average growth rate of carbon storage in soils worldwide. Opportunities are rather limited for most UK soil types to increase carbon stores, except for peat land, of which the UK has a high proportion. Our focus therefore is their restoration through Government funding and support for private sector initiatives, in which we are investing millions of pounds.

I thank the Minister for that reply and welcome her to her new role. Soil is a Cinderella ecosystems issue, yet it is vital for growing food, preventing floods, and capturing and storing carbon. The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report welcomed the Government’s commitment to increase soil carbon levels by that 0.4% a year as part of our Paris climate commitments, but we could not find any evidence of Government policies to support that goal. With the environment plan and the carbon plan delayed, can she set out as a matter of urgency specific, measurable time-bound plans to improve the nation’s soil and peat lands?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I agree that soil health is absolutely critical and I note the inquiry of the Select Committee. The 25-year environment plan, which I hope will be out shortly—or at least the framework of it—will provide an opportunity for people to contribute to that. Meanwhile, the Government are investing in research to understand better how we can work more closely with farmers to improve soil health in the forthcoming years.

I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to look at the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s publication of last August entitled “New model farming: resilience through diversity”. I hope that she will have a look at it and get a chance to see the CPRE’s suggestions for changing the measures of success for farming. This includes looking at diverse outputs from land management such as carbon storage, water retention and landscape character. Could she look at that and respond to the CPRE?

My right hon. Friend mentions a report that I have not yet read, but I am sure it will be in my box this weekend for me to digest. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has met the CPRE to discuss the matter. There are opportunities to continue to improve soil health. I visited Honeydale farm in Witney yesterday with the excellent Conservative candidate and we also saw a demonstrator farm. There are some interesting opportunities for modern agriculture and the countryside.

Soil is such an important part of the environment. It is not just a growing medium; it is very much an ecological habitat. Will the Minister kindly comment on whether we could have a soil monitoring scheme? Unless we know the actual state of our soils, we will not know how to deal with them.

I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend just the other day to discuss this matter. I have referred to the research that is happening—we are not waiting for the 10-year surveys. The opportunity afforded to us by leaving the European Union will allow the Government to take a holistic approach to improving the environment, including soil health. It will be a bespoke approach for this country, rather than one that is restricted by EU directives.