In Parliament 17th June 2016

The issues at the top of Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan’s priority list are the resources that are at risk, and soil is right up there alongside water. Catherine Paice reports

The Government’s ambition for us all to be managing the UK’s soil sustainably by 2030 will not be met unless further action is taken, the Environmental Audit Committee has warned in a new report. Failing to prevent soil degradation could lead to increased flood risk, lower food security, and greater carbon emissions, it says, and ministers are failing to protect Britain’s soils on farms and in cities.

The committee found that loss of topsoils was leading to an increase in agricultural carbon emissions. The MPs say that if the Government is to meet UK targets on the climate, it needs a clear plan for protecting agricultural soil. There is too much reliance on protection measures largely related to rules connected with farm subsidies, which they say are weak, loosely enforced, and focus on preventing further soil damage rather than encouraging farmers to improve soil quality.

“Soil degradation could mean that some of our most productive agricultural land becomes unprofitable within a generation,” Mary Creagh (Lab, Wakefield), the committee chair, said. “Every tonne of carbon we can retain in soil will help us meet our -carbon budgets and slow climate change.”

Ms Creagh called it a “Cinderella issue”. “It doesn’t receive as much attention as air pollution, water quality or climate change. But, whether we realise it or not, society relies on healthy soil for the food we eat, for flood prevention, and for storing carbon.”

Around 300,000 hectares of UK soil are thought to be contaminated with toxic elements – such as cadmium, arsenic and lead – as a result of the UK’s industrial past, but DEFRA has withdrawn capital grant funding for local authorities to clean up this contamination. The inquiry heard that without this funding councils are now less able and less likely to proactively investigate potential contamination – despite the potential health threat this poses.

Moreover, untreated contamination may harm public health and water quality, and some research has found a statistically significant relationship between soil contamination and poor health. Relying on the planning system to clean up contaminated land may be fine in areas with high land values, but contamination in poorer areas will go untreated.

The UK’s arable soils have seen a worrying decline in carbon levels since 1978, with widespread and ongoing decline in peat soil carbon. The committee calls for resources to investigate contamination, clean-up grants, plans to increase the amount of carbon retained in soil, and a monitoring scheme for soil health.

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