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Soil Quality

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the soils in England will sustain food production at current levels in the long term.

My Lords, we are committed to delivering the natural environment White Paper aspiration of ensuring sustainable management of all soils by 2030. We have introduced new cross-compliance rules to protect soils while reducing paperwork for farmers. Through our agri-tech strategy and sustainable intensification platform we will help farmers to take advantage of the latest techniques, to help them improve productivity while protecting the environment.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to this issue, because of course no soils equals no foods. He will know that 2015 was designated the International Year of Soils to help to highlight this fact and the enormous soil loss, which in the UK is 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil alone per year. He mentioned the new rules that have been introduced. Perhaps he could tell me how farmers will receive practical advice on their soil management from people who are not seeking to sell inputs. Could he also tell me—given the rate of the loss of soil and microbial health, and even the loss of soil scientists, as they are not being replaced at the rate they need to be—whether he thinks that the actions being taken are urgent and effective enough to ensure the continued and, indeed, increased production of British food?

My noble friend asks a number of questions. The Farming Advice Service is a service to help farmers understand and meet the requirements of cross-compliance, greening and the European directives on both water protection and sustainable pesticide use. It has a helpline, newsletters, guidance and technical articles. During 2015 its priorities will be to give advice on the changes to the cross-compliance rules, which include the new soil standards, which go to the prevention of erosion, which she mentioned; maintaining soil cover; and the protection of organic matter.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the study of the soil, its microflora and microfauna, and its interactions with trace elements is both fascinating and essential? In view of the shortage of soil and plant scientists, will he tell us what the Government are doing to increase the numbers of those scientists, and impress upon them how important it is that we have them?

I very strongly agree with the noble Countess. She might be comforted to know that we are investing £10 million through NERC and BBSRC programmes specifically to investigate soil security, with a strong focus on soil biology, which she referred to. We are also undertaking research on soil management approaches to stimulate soil organisms.

My Lords, everybody is frisky today. Having heard from the Back-Bencher from the government side first, we have had a Cross-Bencher, and it is now time to go to the main Opposition—rather, the only Opposition—on the Labour Benches.

I thank the noble Baroness. Does the Minister accept that tree planting plays a critical role in stopping the erosion of soil? As this problem gets more and more acute, what plans do the Government have to engage with the Forestry Commission to allow it to get more in touch with farmers to point out the advantages of tree planting and the disadvantages of removing hedges?

Yes, I strongly agree with the noble Lord. He will be pleased to know that over the past five years not only have we planted 1 million trees, principally in urban areas, through the Big Tree Plant, we have also planted 10 million trees, funded through Pillar 2 of the CAP. We think it is extremely important and I agree with him very strongly on that.

My Lords, does my noble friend think it is entirely wise to cover good-quality agricultural land with solar panel farms producing electricity at an enormous cost to the taxpayer and the user of electricity?

I take my noble friend’s point entirely. The Government’s position is that farmers should not be subsidised twice. They should either take the subsidy for the solar panels or take the subsidies through the common agricultural policy.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer receiving CAP payments. Healthy soils were also identified in the Pitt review, which recommended,

“water retention through management of infiltration”,

to reduce flood risk and delay water flow during flash-flood events. Given the pressures for efficiency in farming, with the ever increasing use of heavy machinery leading to soil compaction and run-off, what were the principal reasons behind the Government’s recommendation that the EU withdraw its proposed soil framework directive to establish a common framework to protect soils, bearing in mind that none of us wants excessive bureaucracy and regulation?

The noble Lord makes an important point. He is right that matters such as compaction affect flood risk. The proposal from the EU lacked flexibility and it was overly prescriptive for member states that already have effective soil protection measures in place, such as the United Kingdom, where we have cross-compliance rules that specifically have measures in place to stop erosion, to maintain a minimum level of soil cover and to protect soil organic matter. There is already a large tranche of existing EU legislation that addresses soil protection.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of the healthiest soils in this country are to be found in allotments? Will he therefore encourage local authorities to avoid building on allotments wherever possible and, when they cannot avoid it in the public interest, to ensure that the land that is given in compensation is of similar quality? Not any old piece of land will do—it takes 20 years to develop a good soil.

I certainly take my noble friend’s point and I will take it back. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, reminded me that I should also have declared an interest as a recipient of CAP funds.