Healthy soil is essential for the supply of healthy food and clean water, and also helps us lock up carbon to tackle the climate and nature emergency.
Farmers will be financially rewarded for protecting soil as well as air, water and wildlife under new payment rules to be brought in after the UK leaves the European Union.
The agriculture bill will be debated in Parliament today. A previous version of the legislation had to be withdrawn ahead of the general election in December.
The new bill states that the government will now provide support for farmers to improve management of soil. This was a key ask of many environmental campaign groups, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which specifically recommended the measure in a report in 2018.
Crispin Truman, chief executive of the CPRE, said: “Healthy soil is essential for the supply of healthy food and clean water, and also helps us lock up carbon to tackle the climate and nature emergency.”
Clear support for approaches already being pioneered by farmers such as agroforestry and conservation agriculture, he added. But farmers need training, mentoring and advice to support them with nature-friendly farming, he added.
Vicki Hird, farm campaign coordinator at food and farming campaign organisation Sustain, welcomed the inclusion of soil protection, but added that the government would need to introduce tangible measures for all farmers and growers to adopt agro-ecological practices to tackle the climate and nature emergency, and to produce healthy food.
Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said that the government was leading the way in its commitment to public money for public goods.
He added: “But to succeed, the law must be accompanied by firm funding plans beyond this parliament, regulation to ensure that imports meet high environmental and welfare standards, and simple but strong enforcement requirements for farming rules.”
Campaign groups have estimated that farmers will need at least £3 billion a year for ten years to deliver the nature-friendly farming practices.
The bill also includes a new commitment for the government to regularly report on food security to parliament, and provisions to protect all sellers of agricultural produce from abuse by business purchasers.
The National Farmers’ Union said that it wanted to see legislation underpinning the government’s assurances that they will not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK through future trade deals.
This is particularly a concern in the case of a trade deal with the US, where food standards are lower. Environment secretary Theresa Villiers has pledged that Britain will not allow imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef.
The farmers’ union wants the government to establish a standards commission to oversee future food trade policy and negotiations.
Hird echoed this concern, saying: “The elephant in the room is on trade and whether UK farmers will have to compete with low standard, low welfare imports that would be illegal in this country. We need to see a legal framework to ensure this cannot happen.”
Kierra Box, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Making sure there is enough healthy, sustainably produced food for everyone is a positive aim in this Bill, but technology is not a magic bullet. Future food productivity will rely on protecting and restoring natural services such as pollination and soil health.
“As well as being key for food productivity, environmentally friendly farming is a crucial part of fixing the climate and nature crisis. But, as we begin to trade independently, UK efforts could be undermined by imports from countries that have lower environmental, food, and animal welfare standards. The government must add a legal commitment to prevent trade deals from forcing lower standards on the UK.”
Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) said: “We welcome the Agriculture Bill returning to Parliament as one of the most important agricultural reforms we’ve seen in decades.
To safeguard food security, farmers must be supported so they can protect and enhance our wildlife, soil and environment. Farming policy needs to deliver a system based on public money for public goods, as this will ensure we also tackle the climate and ecological emergency.
“Productivity shouldn’t just be about producing more food; it must not be an expense to the environment, and should involve farmers delivering healthy food at world-leading standards. This new Agriculture Bill needs to be clear and transparent, enabling farmers to have an honest contract with society for the future.”
Professor Duncan Cameron, soil microbiologist and Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, said: "It's great to see ministers putting soil protection at the fore of the new Agriculture Bill - something soil scientists have spent years pushing for.
"With erosion rates from ploughed fields 10-100 times greater than rates of soil formation, we are facing a crisis of food security within our lifetimes. Turning this around won't be easy, and it's crucial that policymakers and scientists work closely with farmers, who know their land better than anyone.
"Further interdisciplinary work is essential to provide policy that will support farmers and save our soil - but incentives for farmers to adopt protective measures are a significant step in the right direction."
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76. Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.