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Soil Health

Volume 798: debated on Monday 8 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to enhance and protect soil health in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I am honoured to be the first person to use the new system. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Soil is one of our greatest assets; good soil health is essential for food production, biodiversity, carbon storage and flood protection. In April 2018, Defra introduced the farming rules for water, containing measures to prevent soil erosion and improve its management. Defra is funding a range of research, including the Soil Security Programme, which is looking into soil stability, restoration of arable soil quality and understanding and enhancing soil ecosystem services.

I thank the noble Lord for his reply. It is very encouraging, but I shall press a little further. Industrial agriculture, which has been the norm for 70 years, damages crucial soil structures through deep ploughing. This reduces natural fertility, which necessitates using an increasing amount of chemicals just to sustain yields. Furthermore, very deep ploughing releases CO2, which the soil could store naturally. Conservation agriculture, where ploughing is kept to a minimum or stopped altogether, stores carbon while simultaneously limiting or even eliminating the need for chemicals. What steps are the Government taking to support this win-win practice?

My Lords, this will clearly be a collaborative matter between industry and government. I am very pleased that regenerative agriculture is very much the buzzword among the farming community. The two-day Groundswell conference run by the Cherry family in Hertfordshire shows the energy for reduced or minimum till, herbal leys and winter cropping. All that is an indication of the future and the Government are right behind it.

My Lords, given the increased evidence of soil degradation in the UK and its importance to the very basics of human existence, why does the Government’s 25-year environment plan not have headline targets for improving soil health with the funding to make it a reality, as recommended by the Natural Capital Committee?

My Lords, I am very pleased to say that research was commissioned in November 2018 to develop soil monitoring. It is being undertaken by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, which will work on healthy soil indicators—included in the 25-year environment plan indicator framework—and a framework for soil monitoring. It is very important that this is done.

My Lords, will the Government’s forthcoming environment Bill commit to improving soil health and have the targets and metrics to deliver this?

My Lords, as I just said, one of the research projects is undertaking to have indicators and a framework. Good soil health provides a public benefit. It obviously provides a private benefit to farmers and food producers, but it also produces a very considerable benefit for public good. That is why it is important for it to be part of the testing and trials of the environmental land management scheme.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that some of the healthiest soil is that created by a peat bog? Will he pay tribute to those who were alive to the Slowing the Flow at Pickering flood prevention project, part of which was to create a peat bog, which can take up to 200 years to form. Are the Government planning to create more peat bogs as part of the public good, to be announced in due course?

My Lords, as part of the England Peat Strategy, and the research we are undertaking feeding into it, we are also establishing a lowland agricultural peat task force. The Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change has suggested that there is a loss of peat soils, particularly in the East Anglian fens—where there is big production of food—but I also commend Slowing the Flow at Pickering, another example of what we do in restoring the natural ecosystem and managing flooding.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer, as set out in the register. As the Minister knows, soil is in private ownership unless the land is publicly owned. Accordingly, the Government need to make protection of the soil a public benefit under the Agriculture Bill for their policies to be successful. That entails management and measurement of the actions introduced to improve the soil and the land concerned. As with the technical solutions on the Northern Irish border, farmers are not aware of any tested measurement tools that would achieve this.

My Lords, in a number of earlier replies I suggested that work on this is ongoing. A considerable number of farmers across the land are involved in tests and trials, which will be rolled out. In providing public money for public benefits, we need to ensure that they hit the optimum. Obviously, the farmers want the optimum, but in the investment of public money, we also need an optimum in terms of the restoration and enhancement of the environment.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned minimum till in an earlier answer. This frequently involves the extensive use of roundup. Can he tell the House what research is being done on the effects of roundup on the micro-organisms, which are so important to the development of good soil?

The noble Countess is right that part of min-till or no-till is that glyphosate is required because of the accumulation of weeds. We in the department will always act on the best independent scientific evidence available, and glyphosate is on the market because it is deemed safe.

My Lords, the Minister has not mentioned devolution in this connection. Can he make some observations about its importance for the Government’s plans?

My Lords, I did not raise it because soil is a devolved matter and it will therefore be for the other Administrations to work on this. All I can say is that soil is an asset of great value across the country. In Defra’s collaborations and discussions with all Ministers from all the Administrations, soil and its health are clearly of national interest—by that, I mean for the United Kingdom.

My Lords, forgive me if this is because of my lack of understanding but when the Minister answered my noble friend Lady Parminter, who questioned whether measures would be included in the Bill, he said a lot of good things about the measures. However, I did not understand whether they were to be in the Bill or not. Can he possibly clarify?

The environment Bill has yet to be published while the Agriculture Bill is in the public domain; it is in the other place. In the payment of public money for public goods, we intend to set out clearly what would be required for that money to be received by landowners and farmers to achieve that public benefit.