Some of the most productive agricultural land in England is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation through soil erosion and loss of carbon, and the natural environment will be seriously harmed.
When the Environment Audit Committee of the House of Commons published its report into soil health yesterday it pulled no punches. For example, it pointed out,
"The Government says it wants our soil to be managed sustainably by 2030, but there is no evidence that it is putting in place the policies to make this happen."
That lack of action comes even though "society relies on healthy soil for the food we eat, for flood prevention, and for storing carbon ... Soil is crucial to society. Neglecting soil health could have dire consequences for food security, climate change, and public health."
This confirmed what many of us who work with soil have known for sometime: that soil is an often overlooked component of the environment - but one that is critical to our very survival.
The report calls on the government to account over four main issues: the need to protect soils from degradation; the need to clean-up contaminated land; the potential to enhance carbon sequestration in soils; and the need to monitor the condition of soils across the UK on a rolling basis.
Stop degrading soils!
The EAC's report identifies the government's record in tackling soil degradation as a cause for concern. Even in a benign climate such as in the UK we can still find soils that are severely degraded.
Farmers on the South Downs are growing crops in rock rubble, relying on external nutrient inputs to sustain their crops, many rivers run turbid during heavy rains and some of our upland soils have become so severely degraded that you can stand on bed rock where once there were soils almost two meters deep.
There are places within view of Lancaster University where Trig points put up in the 1920s with a foundation dug six foot into the ground are now completely exposed. Currently the government relies on 'cross compliance' (subsidy payments farmers receive for protecting the environment) as a mechanism to promote maintaining soil cover. But as the Committee points out,
"There is reason to doubt that the current cross compliance regime is achieving its goal of preventing soil damage. In 2015 only two breaches of the soil rules were detected. Moreover, the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition standards are not ambitious enough to support Defra's goal that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030, since they focus only on preventing damaging practices and not on restoration or improvement of soil quality. The requirements also fail to address important aspects of soil health such as soil biota and soil structure."
The government should, they continue, "produce and consult on proposals to increase the ambition, scope and effectiveness of cross compliance in order to mitigate the impact of agriculture on soil health and incentivise provision of wider ecosystems services such as water quality and flood protection."
Widening this out to include soils in the uplands will also be essential as these soils contain much of our soil carbon and are source of flood water. Tackling wind erosion and tillage erosion are also important. In many agricultural landscapes tillage is a much more significant process than water erosion.
The scandal of maize of anaerobic digestion
The Committee takes well-deserved aim at the problem of large scale maize cultivation for anaerobic digestion to generate 'renewable' electricity, attracting both farming and energy subsidies - and often leading to massive soil erosion:
"Maize production can damage soil health when managed incorrectly, and incentives for anaerobic digestion should be structured to reflect this. The double subsidy for maize produced for anaerobic digestion is counterproductive and has contributed to the increase in land used for maize production.
"Renewable energy subsidies for anaerobic digestion should be restructured to avoid harmful unintended consequences. Revisions should either exclude maize from the subsidy altogether or impose strict conditions on subsidised maize production to avoid practices in high-risk locations which lead to soil damage. The broader cross-compliance regime has not proved sufficient to prevent such damage.
"Defra and DECC should work together to evaluate the impact of energy policy on soil health across the board. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should include specific plans for inter-departmental working and structures of accountability with the goal that soil protection is not simply the responsibility of Defra, but rather is a factor against which any policy can be measured."
Boost soil carbon
Soil carbon is vital to the functioning of soil. It provides the food and habitat for soil organisms, supporting a population of billions bacteria and fundi in just a handful of soil.
These organisms are critical for cycling nutrients between the organic and inorganic fractions of the soil, making them more available to plants. The soil organic matter also helps the soil to hold onto nutrients and release them into the soil solution and the glue that binds soils together helping it to resist erosive forces.
However, it's the soil's ability to store carbon that has caught the Committee's eyes. Soils store more carbon than that in all the vegetation (including forests) and atmosphere combined - about a third of all carbon on the terrestrial surface. Storing more carbon in soils could help to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.
And the Committee is keen that the government delivers on its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement and supports the French proposal of a 0.4% increase in soil carbon each year: "At COP21 the Government signed up to an initiative to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year: as part of the 25-year environment plan, it should set out specific, measurable and time-limited actions that will be taken to achieve this goal."
Achieving a year-on-year increase will be a challenge, but given the benefits to the soil and the atmosphere it is one would should rise to.
Repair our contaminated and degraded soils
The UK has for sometime adopted a pragmatic, risk-based approach to managing contaminated land - given our long industrial history we have quite a lot of it - with around 300,000 potentially contaminated land sites in the UK, which may represent a source of harm to the environment and human health. This has allowed low value contaminated land to be 'recycled' and used more profitably.
However Defra's decision to withdraw the 'Part 2A' Capital Grant funding for contaminated land remediation has "undermined councils' ability to meet their statutory duty under the Environmental Protection Act. Despite this, Defra appears complacent about the issue ... we have heard evidence that local authorities are having difficulty meeting this duty, making Part 2A 'virtually unworkable' ... The rationale Defra gave in 2014 for not producing an impact assessment for withdrawing the funding was entirely spurious."
The Committee rightly calls on the government to to set new funding for contaminated land remediation at the level of the old scheme. It has also recognised that action to combat degradation, raise soil carbon contents and address soil contamination are laudable and necessary, but we need know if things are getting worse or better.
The last (and only!) National Soil Inventory (NSI) was carried out in 1983 with a partial resurvey in 1995. The NSI visited the soils at over 6,500 locations and analysed them for a wide range of characteristics. More recently we have relied on the decadal Countryside Survey where topsoil samples were analysed for a more limited number of characteristics, with samples from around 600 kilometer squares across the country.
No further Countryside Survey has yet been planned. However, the situation is not the same in Scotland and Wales: here the devolved governments have recognised the importance of soils and commissioned soil monitoring programmes of their own - it's time for England to catch up.
A time for action!
On our present trajectory dire consequences lie ahead, warns the report: "Some of the most productive agricultural land in England is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation through soil erosion and loss of carbon, and the natural environment will be seriously harmed."
As the committee recognises, soil protection has to be at the heart of environmental policy. But will the government pay attention? Defra is developing two separate 25 year plans for the Environment and for Agriculture. There is great potential here for Defra to address years of neglecting soils, but also for conflict between the plans:
"Defra's upcoming 25-year environment plan should seek to rectify this long-standing deficit and place soil protection at the heart of environmental policy. Defra must also ensure that its accompanying 25-year plan for food and farming does not sit in tension with its environment plan.
"We must move away from viewing soil merely as a growth medium and treat it as an ecosystem in its own right. We call for more joined up soil policy between Government departments to ensure no clashes in priorities. As well as taking national action, the Government should remain open to action on a European level to ensure soil protection."
We certainly need a fresh approach to protecting our soils against erosion, degradation and contamination, placing soil on a level with air and water as essential to the nation's prosperity and survival.
We must hope that the EAC's strongly-worded report provides the alarm call the government so clearly needs to take swift and effective action.
John Quinton is Professor of Soil Science at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University. He has a degree in Soil Science and a PhD in soil erosion and has spent the last 25 years researching soil processes and their links to environmental quality and food production. He is Executive Editor of the European Sciences Union's journal SOIL. He tweets @JohnQuinton