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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 

Oral evidence: Soil health, HC 963

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 18 July 2023.

Watch the meeting 

Members present: Sir Robert Goodwill (Chair); Ian Byrne; Barry Gardiner; Dr Neil Hudson; Robbie Moore; Mrs Sheryll Murray; Julian Sturdy; Derek Thomas.

Questions 339 - 425


I: Rt Hon Mark Spencer, Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries; Fiona James, Deputy Director for Policy Design, Farming and Countryside Programme, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Sion McGeever, Deputy Director for Access, Landscapes, Peatland and Soil, DEFRA.

Written evidence from witnesses:

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Mark Spencer, Fiona James and Sion McGeever.

Q339       Chair: Welcome to this last session of the EFRA Select Committee before the summer recessthe last session on our report on soil health. We always save the best till last, so we have Minister Mark Spencer with us, with two of his doughty officials. Would you like to introduce yourselves, starting with Mr McGeever on the left?

Sion McGeever: I am deputy director for access, landscapes, peatlands and soil at DEFRA.

Mark Spencer: I am the Food and Farming Minister. I must be getting some sort of award for attending your Committee, Sir Robert, more than some of your Committee members. I think I have been here more than them, but you can’t be alienating your audience before you start.

Chair: There are no long-service awards here, Minister.

Fiona James: Good afternoon, everybody. I am the deputy director in DEFRAs farming and countryside programme, and I am responsible for the environmental land management schemes.

Q340       Chair: Wonderful. You are all most welcome. My first question to the Minister is: how seriously are the Government taking the issue of soil degradation?

Mark Spencer: It is important not only to the Department, but to farmers, of course. Farmers are dependent upon top-quality soil to grow top-quality food to keep us all well fed. Soils are a resource that we must protect, and we want to help and support farmers in achieving that.

Q341       Chair: In terms of the level of soil degradation, which direction are we going in? Are things getting better or getting worse?

Mark Spencer: It depends on which soils we are talking about in which parts of the country. Clearly, there are some challenges around lowland peat, which we need to address fairly soon. We can always do more. Some modern agricultural practice since the mechanisation of agriculture, it is fair to say, moves soil around, which means that the weather can affect it, as well as farming practices. It is clear to say that there is a challenge to make sure we protect our soils and look after them, but that is a challenge that not only the Government but farmers and those land managers are up for. They are dependent on the top-quality soil to grow their crops, so it is in their interests to protect those soils.

Q342       Chair: Is the absence of grass in many arable rotations now a factor in the way that soils may be less healthy?

Mark Spencer: There is an argument that mixed farming helps with soil quality. Anyone who has operated in a mixed farming environment will see the benefit of grass leys within that rotation, but other crops are available to add humusorganic matterto the soil. Under some of the schemes that we are developing, we reward farmers for introducing cover crops and organic matter into that rotation.

Q343       Chair: Yes, we will come on to that. Has DEFRA made any recent assessment of the economic impacts of soil degradation, such as the effect on overall productivity, or indeed of how poor soil structure may contribute to worse flooding?

Mark Spencer: Clearly, you can draw some conclusions that soil quality and soil management have an impact on flooding downstream. We can adopt systems, farming techniques and land management techniques that help with flooding downstream. Certainly, farmers that I talk to are up for engaging in those schemes and helping out, some without Government help and support. There are a number of examples, I am sure, in constituencies of Committee members. In mine, farmers have voluntarily engaged with weeping dams, and have put land aside to hold water upstream to help protect villages, just out of public duty, and just to engage with flood alleviation schemes.

Q344       Barry Gardiner: The UN, and even our own Natural Capital Committee, says that soil is the most complex and biodiverse ecosystem in the world, and that it is critical to human existence. Can you identify any other element in your brief where degradation costs the economy £1.2 billion, but there is no action plan to do anything about it?

Mark Spencer: I do not accept the premise that there is no action plan.

Barry Gardiner: The premise is from the Environment Agency report, which says that the degradation costs £1.2 billion to the economy. Of course, there is no soil health action plan. It was abandoned, was it not?

Mark Spencer: Within the environment improvement plan

Barry Gardiner: There are two pages in the EIP. Not even you, Minister, would call that a soil action plan.

Mark Spencer: No, but within the EIP we have made those commitments to making sure that we report, and that we come back. We will report on that progress by May 2024 on the EIP. I stand by that commitment that—

Q345       Barry Gardiner: You had a commitment to produce a soil health action plan. Why was it abandoned?

Mark Spencer: Because we can do it better and quicker through the EIP. Those land managers, farmers and the Government are committed to improving those soils. They see soil as fundamentally important to our ability to produce food. Farmers have a self-interest in improving that soil quality, and we want to help and support them on that journey through the EIP and through the new SFI schemes.

Q346       Barry Gardiner: Let us look at the land use framework that you propose coming up with. Will a dedicated part of that deal with soil strategy? Will that be part of the land use framework, or will we get a separate regulatory framework?

Mark Spencer: The land use framework is a good way of identifying the soil types we have up and down the country, and what their uses are, but it also highlights the complexity of the system and how many different types of soil there are. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to those different types of soils up and down the country. We can help and support lots of management techniques, and we can encourage and discourage management practices. The land use framework will identify that this is actually a complex set of different types of soils up and down the country that will need bespoke solutions. The best-placed people to identify those solutions are probably the land managers and the famers who occupy the land at the time.

Q347       Barry Gardiner: You have given a good argument for explaining why two pages in the EIP is not sufficient, because this is indeed extremely complex. I do not know if you or your officials followed one witness whom we had earlier from Northern Ireland, John Gilliland, who talked about precisely the way in which, there, they worked from the bottom up, using land managers to construct the basis upon which they produced their own strategy for soil.

Perhaps, Mr McGeever, are you aware of that? Are you able to cast some light on how that now informs the process in England?

Sion McGeever: I am aware of that. The plan we have in England is, first of all, the baseline that we are doing through the natural capital ecosystem assessment, but there is also the plan in Northern Ireland, as John Gilliland said, where they work with farmer-led approach and farmer-collected data. The SFI actions that we have now pay for that data to be collected by the farmers.

At the moment, we have no plan to collect that as part of our baseline. We are looking at whether we want to do that. The idea is to empower those farmers to be able to compare the state of their own land with that which we report through the NCEA and to take action with that. We are also looking at—

Q348       Barry Gardiner: I do not want to interrupt your flow, but I do want to probe. Why do we not have a plan to do that at the moment?

Sion McGeever: To bring it into SFI? I need to refer to my colleague on SFI on that but, at the moment, we want to help them to inform themselves about the state of their land, rather than collect that data at that level. We will look at whether we want to do that. There are some issues around whether farmers want to do that, which we have yet to explore.

Through the SFI, we will provide payment for the collection of organic matter data for farmers from themselves, but we are looking at a soil structure scheme, which would add to that carbon and—I would have to check what the other one is—soil compaction data that they could collect with that, and an earthworm count. An earthworm count, soil compaction data—

Q349       Barry Gardiner: You have the soil microbiome and mycorrhizal fungi as well, all of which would be helpful.

Mark Spencer: It would, but to make it easy enough for farmers, we focus on those three things. We will look to see whether we want to collect that data through NCEA, through SFI or through a separate scheme to add that granularity. At the moment, we focus on the NCEA baseline approach that we are putting together.

Q350       Barry Gardiner: Thank you. Ms James, perhaps you could tell us about the doubt in your mind as to whether this would be a useful thing to do. It seems to have been extremely successful in Northern Ireland.

Fiona James: Absolutely, yes. It is worth noting first where we are in terms of the introduction of the sustainable farming incentive. Over recent years we have had a series of tests and trials with farmers and the SFI pilot. Last year we launched SFI 22, and back in June we announced the details of what will be available this year, in terms of sustainable farming incentive. In 2022, we had actions that rewarded farmers for taking actions to improve their soil. We have enhanced and improved those in the 2023 offer.

We are on a bit of a journey through our agricultural transition, as we move away from the old subsidies to the new schemes we want to introduce to support farmers. We need to do that in a measured and controlled way, so that we get that uptake and that enthusiasm for people to start from a solid basis and increase their ambition over time. We are not doing the collection of the data this year, but we have not ruled that out as this scheme continues to develop over the remainder of the agricultural transition period.

Q351       Barry Gardiner: Minister, for a problem that costs the economy £1.2 billion, is the sort of approach that Ms James has outlined—“We might think about it; we can see that it may have worked elsewhere, but we are not on top of it yet and we do not know quite how much we will incentivise farmers to do it, or what the take-up has been since we started this process—an incredibly lax way to address such an enormous problem?

Mark Spencer: I do not, because the interest in soil is enormous within the sector. Anybody who visited the cereals event this year will have seen the enormous amount of interest across the whole sector. NIAB have a huge section dedicated to soil structure and to carbon sequestration and the impact of various cover crops on soil structure. An awful lot of work is taking place not only within the Government to work out the plan to help, but within the private sector as well, and within the farming industry.

Q352       Barry Gardiner: You have outlined that it is important, and I agree with you that it is important. Perhaps, Ms James, you could tell us how many farmers have so far taken up the incentives that they have been offered on the scheme and have specifically done work on soil structure as a result of the incentives that you have put forward.

Fiona James: We have 3,000 live agreements under the sustainable farming incentive at the moment. We expect that that will increase as more offers become available. As the Minister said, we have had such positive feedback from farmers out there about wanting to go into these schemes now.

Q353       Barry Gardiner: How many of those specifically take up issues related to soil health and soil degradation?

Mark Spencer: It is important to clarify that SFI 2023 is not open. It is due to open in August. If farmers out there wanted to engage with SFI 2023, they could not currently sign up, because we are about to roll that out, but those schemes have had an awful lot of anecdotal interest. Talking to farmers at various county shows and events over the last two or three months, there is a vast interest, and so I suspect—

Q354       Barry Gardiner: Great. What would a success criterion look like? What extent of take-up, when you come back in six months time after people have had the opportunity to sign up, would qualify as success?

Mark Spencer: Those numbers going up, and going up at a reasonable rate is—

Barry Gardiner: Give me a target, Minister.

Mark Spencer: I do not want to dig my own grave here, as you are tempting me to do. If I miss that target, I do not want that, of course, to be framed as a failure. I want to be ambitious and I do not want to limit us, either, to a small number. If I give you a small number and we exceed it dramatically, you will accuse me of not being in tune with the industry—

Barry Gardiner: Far be it from me to accuse you of anything, Minister.

Mark Spencer: I want as many as possible. That is the honest answer. We want these schemes to work for farmers. Anecdotally, the farmers I talk to are engaged and open to looking at these new schemes that we are developing.

Q355       Barry Gardiner: In that case, give me the amount by which the £1.2 billion cost to the economy will reduce over a period of time as a result of what you have put in place. That has to be an important element.

Mark Spencer: Yes, but, again, we have to recognise self-interest in that. Those farmers, land managers and food producers up and down the country have an interest in reducing that cost to the economy because it will go on to their bottom line. Of course, farmers are engaged and want to engage with this process of improving their soils because that ultimately improves their productivity and their profitability.

Barry Gardiner: A £500 million loss, or more or less?

Mark Spencer: We can dramatically affect that figure but—

Barry Gardiner: A dramatic impact on the £1.2 billion. Thanks very much.

Mark Spencer: And on the profitability of those farmers producing food and keeping us well fed.

Chair: Not having a wet potato harvest tends to help as well, Minister.

Mark Spencer: Of course. These are all subject to weather, but we recognise that. We know that. Over the long term, I subscribe to your view, Mr Gardiner, that we want to improve soil quality and the productivity of our farming industry, because, again, we have self-interest in that. We want our farmers to keep us well fed, as they have done for generations.

Q356       Derek Thomas: The Department has said that it wants 60% of agricultural soil to be under sustainable management in seven years time, but it is not clear what definition you use for sustainable management. Is that sensible? Is that helpful?

Mark Spencer: You can attach as many definitions to sustainable as you want to. We can fall out over that definition. To me, it means: are the practices that we pursue regularly repeatable for the next century, and are we having a detrimental or positive impact on the environment? The schemes that we have designed, particularly SFI, are designed to encourage farming practice that improves our environmental footprint, improves our biodiversity and at the same time supports farmers to produce food.

Q357       Derek Thomas: If I can describe some of the elements as a pick-and-mix approach, does that give you a clear picture by 2030? Also, does soil management mean stopping run-off and losing soil into our rivers?

Mark Spencer: Yes. They are two separate questions. Does pick-and-mix work? In my opinion, what we have been told by farmers and land managers is, If you are too prescriptive, if you try to box us in with too prescriptive set-off criteria to engage with the system”—because farms and soil types vary up and down the country—"that may preclude us from engaging. If you can give us as large a menu as possible to choose from, we are much more likely to engage, and we can stack some of the things that you offer us and deliver some of those positive outcomes without being boxed in by something that does not work on my farm. That is what they tell us. I defend robustly that system you described as pick-and-mix. I prefer to call it a large menu from which you can choose.

What was the second bit? Sorry, I have forgotten the second part of your question.

Derek Thomas: Retaining soil, so that it is not washing away in our rivers.

Mark Spencer: Yes. I sort of take exception to the idea that farmers want to see that happen. Of course they do not. Of course farmers want the soil. Their livelihood is dependent upon it. Their ability to produce food is dependent upon the quality of the soil in their fields. The last thing they want to see is it washing into rivers and ending up in a place where they can no longer farm it.

Q358       Derek Thomas: Do you want to extend sustainable soil to non-agricultural land, and look at capturing carbon, organic carbon and agroforestry? Are you also looking at that measure?

Mark Spencer: Clearly, the forestry industry has a huge part to play in capturing and sequestering carbon. I would not limit us to just farming, but of course the levers that are available to us through SFI are only available to us in the farming sector. That does not mean to say that we cannot look at other practices in how we use and manage soil. Certainly, in the construction industry, for example, we can do stuff to help developers manage their soil, so that less soil ends up in landfill and more soil ends up in a positive use. Soil in landfill costs developers, because it then becomes subject to landfill tax, when actually it is probably good-quality soil that could be used in the development, or elsewhere on the site.

Q359       Derek Thomas: You are potentially, quite rightly, arguing that you will get to a place where all soil will be under some sort of management, even if it is moved from a building site on to agricultural land.

Mark Spencer: Again, there is self-interest in making that work. There is a motive for developers not to put soil into landfill, because that is a cost. We can use the tax system to help. I am much more a fan of carrots than I am of sticks, if I am honest, but you do always have the regulatory stick that you can rely on. In my experience, carrots work much better.

Q360       Chair: Are we likely to have to go with some trade-offs? For example, if we improve the soil organic matter by having livestock on farms, it might result in more methane emissions. It might result in more leaching of nitrates and manures being deposited at times of year when grass is not taking them up. Will we have to accept some trade-offs as we go on this journey?

Mark Spencer: Call me an eternal optimist, but we can do both. Genuinely, we can do both. The way in which technology is advancing and the way in which knowledge of those management techniques is advancing will help us. A direct example of that is that if we can find feed additives that reduce the methane output of ruminants, we should embrace that technology. That would have a huge effect on the methane output of our meat sector.

We could use management techniques to hold ammonia and nitrates within farm buildings and slurry systems, and could then deploy them at the right time of year, using the right type of machinery. You will have seen up and down the country huge investment in manure spreading, which is now done via dribble bars, which drop manures from a much lower height on to the soil; or it can even be injected into the soil. That dramatically reduces the amount of ammonia that reaches the atmosphere. It also dramatically improves the amount of nutrient that is available to the crop. That is of course in the interests of the farmer; they do not want those nutrients to be washing into our rivers, because they are expensive. We have seen what has happened to the cost of fertiliser over the last two years. Farmers are tuned into the cost of those nutrients. If we can get those nutrients from farmyard manures, we do not have to buy them in bags.

Q361       Mrs Sheryll Murray: Despite the problem being identified in 2016, the Committee has heard that soil health indicators will not be ready for 18 months, and a baseline will not be established until 10 years after thatuntil 2028. Why is it taking so long, and are you confident that they will be ready by the date indicated?

Mark Spencer: Clearly, we need to have a soil health baseline established. I am quite keen to try to do that. I want to do that through the EIP if we can.

Q362       Mrs Sheryll Murray: Could it be ready before that date that I have given you?

Sion McGeever: Is it worth me saying a few things on that? Developing a soil indicator that the soil community at large can agree with is complex, particularly as we have 700 different soil types and we are trying to get something that works for all of them.

JNCC published a report in June with an outline of how the indicator will look. We are currently road testing that. Essentially, when we take the samples, it breaks it down into 12 measures around three areas: the biological, chemical and physical structure of the soil. Then it maps that against the four main ecosystem services that you want the soil to deliver. To make sure I get this right, those are climate regulation, water regulation, maintenance of biodiversity and food and fibre provision. It scores them against that.

That is the way that the NCEA baseline will work. It will give you a map across all of England that you can access. It will be open-access data. It will then allow farmers to compare their own data for their own soil tests to that to understand where they sit on the baseline. The work is under way. We have the outline, but because it is complex, we want to road test it. We have given ourselves that time to commit to it. I assure you that we have it in hand.

Q363       Mrs Sheryll Murray: How much funding has been given to the soil monitoring programme, and which agencies are responsible for this work?

Sion McGeever: The funding for the NCEA is £140 million and, at the moment, that is still in the design and initial phases for the baseline. A budget for that has not been totally ringfenced, so I cannot say for sure how much of that will go into it, but the commitment is there to do the whole baseline by 2028.

Mark Spencer: Over three years.

Q364       Mrs Sheryll Murray: We have heard that it is vital to understand long-term soil trends, as soils can take decades to recover. Is the funding for the monitoring programme assured for the long term?

Mark Spencer: All of these are subject to review. Any Government will operate within that five-year spending review. It is for us as a Department to make the case that this is important work and to secure that funding through the usual process. I am optimistic that we can make a robust and strong case to the Exchequer that the good stuff we are doing is worthy of support.

Q365       Mrs Sheryll Murray: Will it be possible to link the new data with the old data?

Mark Spencer: New data is always available, and we will always embrace new data and use it in the most effective way to control the outcomes that we want to see.

Q366       Dr Neil Hudson: We touched on this in Sherylls question about data, but I want to elaborate a bit more on data collection and how we do this. We have heard throughout our inquiry that land managers potentially need more support when testing their soils. What steps are you taking to develop low-cost soil testing solutions for farmers and land managers, and to provide guidance on how best to use the data they collect?

Mark Spencer: Again, it is complicated as a system, because you have lots of different soil types and lots of different farming techniques. If you say, Here is the system that you can use to monitor or to record your soil as a bespoke system, it does not always roll out on every single farm in the country. It is about making sure that farmers have the base understanding; that they are engaged in the process of looking at and understanding their soil; and making sure the practices that they are engaged in seek to improve it, rather than degrade it. I do not know if you want to add any more.

Sion McGeever: Yes. In practical terms, we will provide guidance—

Q367       Dr Neil Hudson: Will you give help to farmers doing it?

Sion McGeever: I can wave this at you, but we have a relatively simple scheme that allows farmers to identify what kind of soil they have, from 12 different categories. It should be relatively straightforward to test it themselves, but they are also sending it off to labs. Yes, there will be guidance and help for them.

Q368       Dr Neil Hudson: On that guidance, maybe I can pivot over to Fiona, with your SFI and ELMS hat on. Is there the potential and are there plans afoot for the SFI or other ELMS to expand, to fund the testing of further aspects of soil health beyond carbon and some of the basic nutrients? Is there scope for ELMS to support the farmers financially through this?

Fiona James: We are introducing our new soil standards, which will be available to people to apply for after we start our roll-out in the summer this year. Throughout the development of SFI, we have developed that in a co-design way with farmers. We have tried to get that right balance in creating actions that deliver the environmental benefits that we know will work for them on the farm. We will continue to iterate and develop those as the scheme rolls out. Yes, potentially, we can add things in future, as we see how things develop.

Q369       Dr Neil Hudson: I will come back to you, Minister, but, Sion, you started talking about ways of standardising, so that people compare like with like. Can you articulate what steps the Department is taking to help standardise that process, so that people collect similar types of data?

Sion McGeever: I will try my best, because I am not close to the technology. With the way that we are doing the testing on the NCEA and the standards being set out on thatand obviously, there has been reference to the previous service that was done—we want to make sure that we have data that we can compare not just now, but in five years, 10 years, 15 years and 20 years, because this takes a while. We also want to compare with the data that the farmers collect. The guidance that we provide will be in line with the standards that the NCEA applies for the baseline collection, particularly on soil organic matter.

Q370       Dr Neil Hudson: Thank you. Minister, we touched on this. Farmers already conduct many types of tests. Potentially, this could be used by farmers and land managers to benchmark their progress. We want that baseline.

In our visits to Rothamsted Research and to the Barfoots farm, there has been this call for a database that people can input into, but there have been concerns that farmers at field level do not want those data publicly accessible, so you want it more regional. Would the Government consider developing a database to collect these data, or do you want to keep that at arms length from you?

Mark Spencer: Clearly, we have to try to find a system that measures carbon sequestration in our soils at some point in the future. We do not want 10 different systems measuring 10 different things. We have to focus on outcomes here. What outcome do we want to achieve? We want to achieve better-quality soil, managed in a better way, sequestering as much carbon as possible. We can start that journey right now, and farmers are up for doing that. That is what is SFI is designed to do. Let us get going on that journey and improve the soils as much as we can without obsessing too much about measuring and comparing with each others. It is so diverse across the country that you will end up comparing apples and pears.

Q371       Dr Neil Hudson: In a similar way, in Northern Ireland a witness talked about the Government Department there, DAERA, funding this and looking at data across Northern Ireland. That is not without cost to the public purse. Have you looked at that from a UK Government perspective? Do you want to replicate that, or are you going nowhere near it?

Mark Spencer: All of these remain under review. We certainly can consider that going forward but, at this moment in time, there are no firm plans.

Q372       Dr Neil Hudson: If farmers and land managers enrol in some of these schemes, and these schemes adapt, and you help them financially to do some of this testing, could some form of central repository help the farming nation?

Sion McGeever: To go back to the DAERA approach in Northern Ireland, they are slightly different. You have to do the soil sampling before you can enter the scheme. It is called a voluntary approach, but you have to pass through that gateway. We do not intend to do that at this point.

We want to see the uptake from farmers of the soil assessment and testing that they will do through SFI. We need to be mindful of data protection and data sharing. Having that data at that level will be useful, but we need to find the right time and the right way to do that. If I am not overstepping from an SFI point of view, you do not want that to be a barrier to entry, if people feel that their data will be required—

Q373       Dr Neil Hudson: Are you looking at the Northern Ireland model for your evidence basis as well, to see their experiences? Are you evaluating that?

Sion McGeever: Of course, because they are slightly ahead, so it is quite useful to see how that works.

Mark Spencer: It is about getting the biggest bang for your buck. You can only spend taxpayers money once. Do you spend it on incentivising people to adopt the right practice, and to motivate them to improve their soils, or do you spend that on monitoring what you have achieved? At the moment, we are better spending taxpayers money on doing the right thing, improving those techniques and improving soils, rather than obsessing over measuring how we achieve that. We should be safe in the knowledge that we are achieving it; it is improving vastly because of SFI, and motivating people to do the right thing.

Chair: We come back to the old adage that you do not fatten the pig by weighing it. Barry had a supplementary.

Q374       Barry Gardiner: Mr McGeever, you said that testing by farmers was a condition of entry into the Northern Ireland scheme. That is absolutely right. One of the benefits of the way they have done it in Northern Ireland is that a standardised test is done. Therefore, you are comparing apples with apples, rather than each farmer doing a slightly different test and comparing apples with pears. That, if you look at the baseline that you are proposing to create in 2028, would give you a consistent baseline from which to work.

Sion McGeever: That is correct. John Gilliland talked about integrity of data and he did say apples with apples. That is why we are—

Barry Gardiner: Why do you propose not to do it that way?

Sion McGeever: It is not that we are not doing it. We provide the guidance and the standards to the farmers, so that they can do the measurements in line with the NCEA.

Q375       Barry Gardiner: Will they be able to upload any test that they have conducted, rather than having that standardised model?

Sion McGeever: We have not got to the point where we are uploading that data yet but, if we do, I imagine we want to make sure that the data that we do accept into that database is in line with the standards that we have put in the guidance through the NCEA approach that we talked about. That will be important.

Q376       Dr Neil Hudson: Coming back to that point, you mentioned, Minister, you do not want to obsess over collecting the data, but when it comes to measuring performance, you do not have to obsess over it, but you need a baseline, and to know whether something has improved or deteriorated. You need to measure it in some way.

Mark Spencer: My point is that there is little point in comparing a field in Nottinghamshire and one in Cumbria. What matters is your field in Cumbria improving and my field in Nottinghamshire improving. It is important to measure that and make sure that, as a farmer, I improve the land over which I have control. Comparing that between Nottinghamshire and Cumbria is almost of little value.

Q377       Chair: It surprised me a little, when we heard about Northern Ireland, how few farmers had even tested their soil. That is partly due to the fact that there is a lot of grassland in Northern Ireland, but some have not even tested their pH, never mind nutrients. Of course, in England, if you are a Red Tractor assured farmer, you have to show to the inspector that you have done a soil test. That data is out there, albeit that, as we have heard, some of the labs may have slightly different criteria, and maybe we are not exactly comparing the same thing.

Is there some way we could maybe incentivise farmers to upload the data that is already in filing cabinets and computers up and down the country? That could at least be a good starting point, albeit that it would not include carbon, which we are not testing for, to an extent.

Mark Spencer: Nutrient value will change on a seasonal basis. I am not quite sure how useful that data would be. What matters is whether its organic matter, its structure and its carbon sequestration are improving.

Q378       Chair: Would biodiversity and earthworms be important to measure as well?

Mark Spencer: They are all important parts of a healthy living soil.

Q379       Julian Sturdy: Before I ask my question, I will draw Members’ attention to my declaration of interest: I am a farmer, and I enter into some of these schemes.

On payment rates, Minister, the ELM scheme payment rates are based on costs and income foregone. Given that profit margins within any farming business, as you will be well aware, vary considerably over a five-year period, why would a farmer adopt a more sustainable soil management practice when these payments do not boost their actual income?

Mark Spencer: They do and they will. You achieve higher yields by having higher-quality soil. There is clear self-interest in that. We have done a lot of work with SFI to engage with farmers, and to listen directly to their feedback. We get a bit of criticismYou should have done this quicker. You should have rolled it out sooner. We are not in that place, and we have not rolled it out as quickly as some would have wanted us to because we have been taking direct feedback from those farmers as to the right level of payment, what works for them and what does not, what they will sign up to, and what they will not. That has been the right approach to try to get to the right destination.

Q380       Julian Sturdy: Some stakeholders do not understand how some of the payment rates have been set. There is a bit of confusion over that. Would you commit to publishing the calculations, and the evidence that has got you to these payment rates?

Mark Spencer: Honestly, some are based on what we think we can pay to motivate people to do it. Again, you are trying to balance the motive and the reward, because as you are aware, there is a fixed budget of £2.4 billion a year. We want to get as much return on that investment as possible. We try to pitch those incentives at a level that will be enough to motivate farmers to engage, but some of those calculations are based on that direct feedback from farmersWhat you have offered in the past is not enough, so we won’t do itor on the fact that many farmers signed up for something that looked too generous. We try to balance that all the time to get the right-sized carrot.

Q381       Julian Sturdy: You have committed slightly to this, but do you feel that things have to be flexible, going forward?

Mark Spencer: I do but, again, that receives criticism. Some farmers say to me, We want to know where we will be in five years time. Why not set the levels of funding so that we can all adapt our business to the level we know we will be at? My response to that is that we want to listen to genuine feedback and to try to be as flexible within the framework as we can, to help and support. You have to be somewhat adaptive, and flexible enough to listen to that feedback from the people who are engaged in the system. That means you have to balance that with the uncertainty that that will create.

Q382       Julian Sturdy: Nature recovery is a big part of the Governments aimspublic money for public good. Do you feel the payment rates for actions reflecting wider environmental benefits and savings provided by soil health are recognised?

Mark Spencer: I sincerely hope so. That is what we have designed the 2023 scheme to try to achieve. We pitched it at what we think is the right level to engage, embrace and get as many people involved in those schemes as possible. The honest truth is that only time will tell. When I am sitting back here in six or eight months, we will know more of the figures, and we will see how many people have signed up. That is a question to ask me next time I come back. We have pitched it at the right level. As I say, anecdotally, people seem to be engaged and want to look at it, but we will get much more of a feel for that as we move forward.

Q383       Julian Sturdy: What is the Governments strategy for getting more private finance into sustainable farming? Will all aspects of soil health be at the core of that? You talked a lot about organic matter, which is a classic example of big benefit not only for growing good food and increasing yields, but also for stopping water run-off and nutrient run-off, more holding capacity of that soil, and so on.

Mark Spencer: There are a number of examples where that is already working, and where flood alleviation schemes have been working with farmers to hold water uphill. We can do more to expand those schemes, but there are also quite a lot of gremlins and bear traps on that journey. Clearly, we need to do more work on carbon sequestration, and on using private finance to help people to sequester carbon on their farm. We also need to work out a fair trading scheme, and a set of criteria by which we can measure where you are at.

Of course, the biggest bear trap of all is making sure that we end up with a system that motivates people to do the right thing going forward, but does not penalise people who have done the right thing in the past. It would be a disaster to end up in that place. This is the proverb of the prodigal son. We cannot end up in that place, because we will motivate people to do the wrong thing now. If people think that they will be rewarded for sequestering carbon in the future rather than being paid for what they have already sequestered, it will create perverse motivations to damage the environment at this moment in time. I am clear that we do not want to send that message. You will be supported for what you have done, as well as what you will do. Those who have done the wrong thing will not financially gain at the expense of those who have done the right thing.

Q384       Chair: Some of the environmental restrictions placed upon farmers are on the statute book—water quality, protecting water courses and so on—but some are cross-compliance under the old EU schemes; they include frequency of cutting hedges and field margins. If a farmer has some of the most productive land in the country, and they choose not to participate in some of these schemes and to go for maximum production, are you looking at putting some of the cross-compliance restrictions on the statute book, so that they still would have to comply with those?

Mark Spencer: Yes. We are looking to decouple and remove some of the cost compliance links. By the same token, we do not want to see environmental damage. Hedgerows are a good example of that. I do not want to see people cutting hedgerows in June and July when birds are nesting. There is no motive for farmers to do that. The farmers I speak to do not want to do that. We remain open to regulation as a last resort but—it is becoming a cliché—I am much more in favour of carrots than sticks. Again, farmers up and down the country whom I talk to want to do the right thing. They want to see ground-nesting bird populations increase. They take a great deal of satisfaction from seeing on that on the farms of which they happen to be custodians.

You see this in lots of farming families; you reach a certain point in your life when you want to leave a positive footprint on the bit of land that you have had the privilege of occupying and managing for your farming lifetime. I see farmers up and down the country planting trees, improving landscapes, trying to leave their own little footprint on the world as they go through their farming career.

Q385       Dr Neil Hudson: One tension within the system with SFI now is that we want more farmers and land managers to enrol. The feedback that I get—and I get this when I talk to farmers as well—is that they want more long-term clarity. We understand it is an iterative process. If people enrol, the schemes can evolve. How do you go about providing farmers with a more long-term vision, to give them some certainty with their planning? In that way, will you set out plans for a more ambitious scheme that includes a wider range of payable actions, such as reducing soil compaction, reducing tillage, or more agroforestry? Do you see what I am getting at? They want clarity on that short-term tension with the long-term.

Mark Spencer: I hope that it is fair to say that most farmers get the direction of travel here. We want to lower our environmental footprint. We want to try to work with nature, not against it. The language is similar and has been for some time.

Moving away from the basic payment scheme into these new schemes is an indication of the direction of travel. I do not see that direction changing at any point in the future. All political parties recognise the importance of going in this direction and recognise the necessity of supporting farmers on this journey. They can act with confidence that for this generation, we will try to achieve this. The basic rules and the payments may be tweaked and may change, and we will need to demonstrate that bit of flexibility, working with farmers, but the fundamental direction of travel is a clear signpost that everybody understands.

Q386       Dr Neil Hudson: If we think about the long term, there has to be some positivity about this. Change is coming. The way to influence and help that change is for farmers to enrol. If we talk these schemes up rather than talk them down, more people will want to join them. Do you agree with that, Minister?

Mark Spencer: I would, but I would not point the finger and say that other political parties do that. We are, as a political system, united. This is the direction we have to go in. We recognise the challenge that climate change will bring to the world. We sometimes disagree on some of the methods to get there but, fundamentally, as a group of politicians, we understand that we want to produce food to keep us all well fed. We have to lower our carbon footprint. We have to lower our environmental footprint. We want to achieve that. Credit to those farmers up and down the country who are coming with us on that journey and are keeping us all well fed.

Q387       Dr Neil Hudson: Talking about those farmers who are coming with us on that journey, I was out last week with James Robinson, who was a witness in front of our inquiry a few weeks ago. He is an organic dairy farmer. We were visiting the farm of Nic Renison, who is doing a rotational grazing system with her beef cattle.

I remember James in his evidence session put forward the idea that to help farmers enrol in some of these schemes, instead of it being pick-and-mix, if you enrol in two, three or four interrelated schemes, could you get some incentive to join the fifth? A lot of these different schemes have the same goal. We try to produce food sustainably while looking after the environment. Is there some way of SFI evolving so that you can get some incentives when you join some of these dots together?

Mark Spencer: Certainly, we are looking at developing what the Secretary of State refers to as Countryside Stewardship plus. If you link up with your neighbours, if you work with your neighbours within a landscape, as a block of farms, you can have a more positive impact and create corridors. The larger landscape-based schemes are aimed at getting groups of landowners to work together, to co-operate, to have outcomes that are within a river basin or an area within the country. Encouraging that engagement and link-up between farmers will be key to delivering some of the outcomes we want to achieve.

Q388       Dr Neil Hudson: If I can come back to some of the actions on soil health, things like trying to minimise bare ground have been dropped from the SFI because they do not work as standalone measures without minimum land parcel size. Does this show some of the limitations that may need to be looked at?

Mark Spencer: We are still supporting cover crops. We are still supporting that sort of farming practice. Under Countryside Stewardship, you can still get support for some of those cover crops. Motivating farmers to not allow that bare land to exist is a good use of taxpayers money. It sequesters carbon. It protects nutrients. It provides an environment for ground-nesting birds to hide in and to feed in. It is helpful to insects and pollinators. Lots of the things we do help the direction of travel.

Q389       Dr Neil Hudson: We have heard that the Countryside Stewardship scheme does not target actions to improve soil health. You talk about Countryside Stewardship plus. Do you rely on SFI to target soil, or might this new iteration of Countryside Stewardship—

Mark Spencer: I dispute that. For example, you can get support to introduce clover into your grass leys. That is clearly good for the environment and reduces the amount of ammonium nitrate you need to apply to that grassland to get the same yield. It sequesters nitrogen from the atmosphere into the root structure.

The use of cover crops for spring cropping so that you do not leave stubble bare, again, is a huge advantage to soil quality, and reduces the amount of artificial fertiliser that is required, because you use that crop to suck up those nutrients and to hold it within the plant. When you destroy that plant, it is available to the next crop. They are all practices that help with soil quality and nutrient management. They are not only good for soils but good for our rivers.

Q390       Dr Neil Hudson: In terms of the iterative approach and improving the ELM schemes moving forward, how will you ensure that the participants whom we want to enrol can provide feedback and incorporate their experiences and their data collection into what you do, so that you hear what you need to hear to change things? How will that dialogue work?

Mark Spencer: Again, we have a good track record here of engaging not only with CLA, NFU, Tenant Farmers and those structured organisations, but also directly with a group of farmers across the country. You will not be surprised to hear that they are good at giving direct feedback to the Department on that.

Q391       Dr Neil Hudson: I have done roadshows with Janet Hughes from your Department, who has been fantastic in terms of that. Yes, farmers are not backward in coming forward and giving that feedback. Are you confident that that dialogue system is working for you as a Department?

Mark Spencer: SFI 2023 is a living example of that. We have listened. We have taken that feedback and we have tweaked and changed it in a way that farmers want to see. The numbers in SFI 2023 will be substantially higher than the numbers in SFI 2022.

Q392       Dr Neil Hudson: What is your level of uptake at the moment? I know we want to get to 75% by 2028. Do you have a number for us now?

Mark Spencer: It is not open at this moment in time.

Dr Neil Hudson: No, but in terms of the newer schemes coming in. We have lots of different schemes. We have SFI. We have the animal health and welfare pathway. What level of uptake do you have at the moment?

Mark Spencer: The figures are encouraging, but I do not want to jinx myself here. If you look at Countryside Stewardship, a long-established scheme, the numbers are going up exponentially. I am optimistic we can do the same with SFI.

Q393       Dr Neil Hudson: I am aware that you do not want to jinx yourself, but could you and your Department write to us, and share some of the figures, if you have them?

Mark Spencer: We can of course supply those figures. I am keen to come back and talk to you nearer Christmas and discuss those figures, because they will look a lot more impressive then.

Q394       Chair: Will many farmers use a consultant to produce their plans for SFI or Countryside Stewardship? Is it likely that the roll-out will be limited to some extent by the ability of those consultants to feed those in?

Mark Spencer: Some and some. We have tried to create those schemes so that they are simplistic and easy to understand, so that farmers do not need to engage a land agent to embrace them. Farms are varied and different up and down the country. Some farmers may choose that route. We want to try to make these schemes easy to understand and easy to engage with. Farmers are pretty bright. They understand how these things work. They know how to apply for these things now.

Under SFI, we have deliberately offered a bonus of £20 a hectare on the first 50 hectares to help smaller family farms use that management time that may be required. It is an extra £1,000 that they can spend on an agent if they want, or they can use it to compensate someone else for doing the job that they were doing while they spend the time in the office developing that scheme.

Q395       Robbie Moore: I want to focus on the farm tenancies and how they interact with ELMS, Minister. Baroness Rock brought out an excellent review and concluded that around 64% of farmland is tenanted in some sort of way, so getting the tenanted sector on board with improving soil health is vital if we want to move forward.

We have heard that Countryside Stewardship and landscape recovery schemes are highly important to restoring soils, as is SFI. Why have the Government decided that tenant farmers cannot access Countryside Stewardship schemes and landscape recovery schemes without getting landlord consent?

Mark Spencer: Some and some. It depends what you want to achieve on that landholding. I believe in property rights. If you own a property, it is your right to control that property as you see fit. As a landlord, of course, you would not want your tenant to do something that is a generational change. If you were to rent your farm to me for five years, and I decided to plant trees all over that farm, that fundamentally changes the character of that agricultural holding to a forest. It would be unfair to allow that to happen without the permission of the landlord.

By the same token, as you identify, we want to try to encourage people into these schemes, so we try to be as flexible as possible. We want to encourage landlords to get their tenants involved. We want the reward of those schemes to go to the active farmer or to the tenant. That is how we have tried to devise the schemes and design them.

Q396       Robbie Moore: I know the Government have said that they are trying to encourage more joint applications coming forward, jointly submitted by landlord and tenant, and more collaboration between the two parties. How will the Government influence the nature of that conversation and the nature of the joint application that might come forward?

Mark Spencer: By allowing those joint applications. If you are a dairy farmer and you have a 10-year rental agreement, and you want to invest in slurry storage systems, of course there needs to be a conversation with the landlord, because there is a huge capital expense. As a tenant, you need the security that you will see the reward come forward from that capital investment. You invest in the long-term viability of that unit and, therefore, the landlord needs to be engaged in that process, and may want to contribute to that as well, because the return and the reward of that level of investment will go beyond the length of the tenancy. Encouraging landlords and tenants to work together, hopefully, will endear people to engaging with some of those grant schemes.

Q397       Robbie Moore: One of the recommendations in the Rock review was geared around this issue of landlords not being seen to unreasonably withhold permission. Again, why have the Government not accepted those recommendations to do with the Rock review that would ensure that the permission to change the land would not unreasonably be withheld by a landlord?

Mark Spencer: That sounds reasonable to say; it is a difficult to write down in legal terms. I am not a lawyer, but defining these things in law becomes quite a lot trickier when you come to write them down, to be honest.

We have tried to devise these schemes so that they are flexible, encouraging and unchallenging to landlords as possible, so that we retain the flexibility to allow tenants to get on and engage with the systems. If you are asking for fundamental change of a unit, of course, it seems only right to me that a landlord should have a say in that process.

To give you another example, if you are an arable farmer in the east, and you struggle to produce crops because of the lack of water, investing in on-farm water storage is a huge capital investment. The benefit of that will go way beyond the length of the tenancy, but it will also fundamentally affect the amount of land that is available, because you have taken land out of food production to put it into water storage. You want the landlords engagement (a) to help with the capital expense of that and (b) to approve that long-term strategic change of the farm.

Q398       Robbie Moore: The Government have said that the Farm Tenancy Forum will play a crucial role in influencing some of the decision making going forward. What are the next steps? The Rock review came out. We have had the Governments response. We have also heard Baroness Rocks response to the Governments response. Certain improvements, recommendations and changes still need to be made. What are the next stages?

Mark Spencer: We have appointed a chairman, a gentleman called Julian Sayers, who is a land agent based in the Oxfordshire area. He is holding his inaugural meeting tomorrow, which I hope to attend. The purpose of that forum will be to give direct guidance and direction to the Government on tenancy matters, and to look at the implementation of the Rock review and how we can move some of those things forward. We have adopted an awful lot of the Rock review. We want to consider other bits a little bit further, and they will help and advise us on that. Also, the Committee has scope to look at other things in the tenancy area, to make sure the voice of tenants and tenant farmers is heard loud and clear in the Government.

Q399       Chair: I do not know if this was raised with you at the Yorkshire show. You talked about grants to help farmers with better slurry storage, which helps reduce pollution, particularly ammonia but also nitrates and so on. Have you come across a case where Natural England has opposed a new slurry store because, although the farmer has no plans to increase the number of cows he milks, it says that could result in the farmer expanding his herd and, therefore, having more nitrates?

Mark Spencer: I have not heard of a direct case of that nature, but I am aware that arm’s length bodies have an influence in this space. We do our best to make sure that the planning system and environmental regulators like the Environment Agency and Natural England understand the direction of travel and the support we want to give to farmers to invest in this infrastructure. Unblocking some of those objections is one priority. We are working to make sure that those conversations are held and that we all pull in the same direction.

I am happy to hear direct examples in private, if MPs up and down the country come across examples of that nature. It is helpful to me to be in possession of those examples to make the case.

Q400       Chair: We have another one. Natural England opposes tree planting because it is concerned that foxes will take up residence in the forests and the woods, and will then go up on the moors, where there are no gamekeepers to shoot them, and predate upon ground-nesting birds. That is another one I will raise with you.

Mark Spencer: Management techniques to reduce those predators are available to us. The Government need to think about how we might support the protection of ground-nesting birds, particularly curlews and lapwings, from that predation.

Q401       Ian Byrne: Minister, stakeholders have suggested that current laws fail to tackle key soil health issues, barely protect non-agricultural soils and do not identify a central organisation to take responsibility for soil protections. Is legislation required to bring in a better regulatory baseline for all soils and establish a leading agency for soil restoration?

Mark Spencer: As I have indicated, I am not a fan of regulation. Regulation is the last resort that I want to end up with. I do not rule it out, but it is the last tool in the toolbox. I want to try to achieve the things that we have been talking about today through positive means, through engaging with landowners and land managers to try to have positive outcomes.

Sion McGeever: We are planning a regulatory baseline review because we recognise that lots of different bits of legislation affect soil, and some of them—

Q402       Ian Byrne: Is that in 2028?

Sion McGeever: No, we plan to review that by March 2024. We will do that by next year, because we recognise that lots of different laws and lots of different regulations have come into play over the years. Some of those may overlap and contradict. We need to review and see whether there are gaps, or whether what we have is right.

Mark Spencer: There is no point in dreaming up new laws and regulations if regulations already in place can help us on this journey.

Q403       Ian Byrne: How long do we give it before we feel as though it has got to a point where we need regulation?

Mark Spencer: We need to identify what we want to achieve that we are not achieving, or where we still see damage occur. Then we can step into that space. If the carrot is not working, then you need that back-up, don’t you?

Q404       Ian Byrne: Are discussions being had with the industry on that?

Mark Spencer: Constantly. Farmers and landowners up and down the country recognise the direction of travel. The majority want to do the right thing. There will be one or two examples where that does not happen. As I say, I do not rule out regulation in those cases, but I want to give people the opportunity to change and to adapt. We can make improvements on lots of small family farms, dairy farms, beef farms, where they have farmed for generations, in terms of run-off and nutrient control, but we need to give them a fair crack of the whip to change, adapt and improve before we go in and stamp all over them and say, We are now enforcing you. Let us help and support them on that journey, because they want to do the right thing, but that needs to be financially viable, and they need to be supported on that journey.

Q405       Ian Byrne: Absolutely. In 2022, DEFRA said that it was reviewing the regulation of farming and land management. Based on this work, feedback received and uptake for ELMS so far, is the voluntary approach to sustainable soil management still best, or do we have to go further?

Mark Spencer: You will not be surprised to hear me say that carrots still work better with farmers. You will be amazed at what you can achieve with the right carrot and the right motivation. We are not trying to push water uphill here. Farmers want to do the right thing. They want to improve their productivity. They want to protect their soils. We are all pulling in the same direction. There will be one or two examples where that is not the case or where accidents or environmental damage occurs. Regulations need to be in place that curb that poor practice.

Q406       Chair: Are you confident it is heading in the right direction?

Mark Spencer: I am. I want to try to give it a chance to improve and to grow naturally. Lots of evidence says that that is the case. Looking at technical events and agricultural shows, not just farmers but the whole industry is aimed in this direction. New machinery and techniques are coming forward. Agrichemical companies are all thinking about how they can get involved in this journey, and help us produce food with less environmental impact.

Q407       Chair: You have talked about using carrots rather than sticks. Under the old CAP system, sometimes farmers who had made quite innocent mistakes were quite disproportionately punished. How do you feel we can get the balance right? Certainly the Environment Agency has been saying that there is an argument for a more robust approach to compliance in the future. Will you get the balance right?

Mark Spencer: This is a genuine Brexit benefit, I suppose. We were restricted under—

Chair: Dont roll your eyes, Barry.

Mark Spencer—the old EU schemes. We had to take action under the old CAP. We are now able to be a little bit more flexible and supportive with some of those regulators and those people who are involved in the system. The Environment Agency is engaged, and its first ambition is to go on to farms, help, support and give advice. The RPA is aimed now at help, advice and support, rather than turning up with a tape measure to catch you out. We want to try to help you understand where you might have gone wrong and put that right as soon as possible.

Let me be clear. If you take the mickey, if you are clearly trying to commit fraud, you will be caught, punished and fined. If you have made an admin error, or you made a minor measurement error in terms of a strip away from a hedgerow, we will try to help you put that right. There will be some flexibility in our approach. Getting that balance right gives us the ability to be more flexible and supportive, as long as you do not take the mickey.

Q408       Chair: The Environment Agency inspected 4,137 farms in 2022-23, which is a small percentage. The RPA is talking about evidence being provided by photographs or documentation. Is the balance right, or would you like to see a few more visits?

Mark Spencer: Clearly, the world has changed. With our access to satellite imagery, it is easy to measure cropping from a satellite and to look at those various schemes from above without the necessity to go on to a farm directly. We can look at those land-use and cropping regimes from satellite. But clearly, where there is a problem, if downstream we detect something that should not be there, of course the EA will want to investigate and work out where that is coming from, and to help put that rightunless a crime has been committed.

Q409       Chair: There seems to be an ambition to reduce the amount of fertiliser and pesticides used. Are we in a position to measure that in a sensible way? For example, on my farm, if I switch from 34.5% ammonium nitrate to 46% urea, I could in effect reduce my fertiliser tonnage by 25%. Similarly, some pesticides use ALLY granules. You can do a whole field with that much, whereas if you use an alternative product that may be less toxic—or may not beyou need a 5-gallon drum. Are we really in a position to measure the amounts of pesticides and fertiliser we use in a sensible way, so we can actually, hand on heart, say, “Yes, we are reducing the amounts of pesticides and the amount of fertiliser that we use”?

Mark Spencer: Yes. We can track the amount of UAN and urea and compare. Again, seasonality will change that, so some seasons—

Q410       Chair: Not commonly, but just on individual farms?

Mark Spencer: Not on individual farms, but across the economy we can clearly track that. But that is what matters, isn’t it, the overall picture? Again, with new technology coming forward and new techniques, you will be aware of machines now that are able to identify, by camera and AI, the difference between the crop and the weed, and either deploy an electric shock or a very small amount of herbicide to that one plant to destroy it and take it out. That will dramatically reduce the amount of pesticide that is applied across a field. Economically, that is of huge benefit to the farmer.

No farmer wants to spend more money on pesticides and fertilisers than they absolutely have to, and to suggest the opposite is frankly wrong. They hate spending money on that stuff, but it has to be done for an economic return.

Chair: Particularly last year.

Mark Spencer: Of course, we are working with the NFU on a plan to look at a bonding agent for urea to try to reduce the amount of ammonia that is released into the atmosphere, but application techniques can also assist in that. Applying urea only to a crop that has got enough cover to keep the sunlight away from the prill is a surefire way of getting as much of that fertiliser into the plant and not into the atmosphere.

Q411       Chair: Do you intend to set targets for reducing artificial fertilisers and pesticides?

Mark Spencer: I think the management techniques that we are adopting, and technology, will bring that forward as a result, and pure economics will help in that direction as well.

Q412       Barry Gardiner: Ms James, I want to talk about manure, digestate, compost, biosolids—all of the mucky part—and the SFI. The Government have made it clear that you understand how adding organic matter can improve the microbiome of the soil, improve soil structure, sequester carbon and so on, and in 2022 the SFI was talking about the value of that. But the SFI in 2023 has no rules or incentives for that. It has dropped it. Why?

Mark Spencer: I think we can achieve those things—

Barry Gardiner: I was asking—

Fiona James: Do you want to go—

Mark Spencer: You go first. I have had enough.

Fiona James: We are probably going to say exactly the same thing. When we looked at the design of the offer for 2023—which farmers will be able to apply for shortly—we were clear that one of the things we wanted to do was respond to the feedback that we had around farmers wanting the flexibility and, in particular, to be able to stack different actions on top of each other, so they can increase the ambition of their agreement overall.

There were three elements of those 22 soil actions that did not work very well in that environment. They were around adding organic matter, a single species, winter cover on a certain percentage of land, and the other one that you talked about earlier: minimising bare ground. We are not preventing a lot of those things, or other options that  help facilitate those. So, yes, we have actions that are labelled "soil actions". We have other things as well that farmers might be going for and, as part of their overall practice, they will still be able to continue with these.

Overall, we think that this is going to deliver what is best for the environmental outcomes we want to achieve, and attractiveness to farmers. We need to be assured that we are future-proofing it, so we can add to it and enhance it over time, rather than knocking it down in a restrictive way. Do you want to come in, Minister?

Q413       Barry Gardiner: If I can just probe a little of what you said, you have indicated that farmers were less keen on these components of SFI, yet the Government have acknowledged just how important getting organic matter into the soil is. In fact, earlier the Minister was talking about, was it, dribble feeders?

Mark Spencer: Yes.

Barry Gardiner: How they could be incredibly useful in both getting the right nutrients in the right place and improving the soil structure at the same time. When we are talking about over-winter crops, again, the importance of that is well established. So it seems strange that these are not things that you are including in the components. What was it that you felt farmers were objecting to about these elements, or that they felt made it difficult to envisage how they would combine those in an SFI composite?

Fiona James: To be clear, I don’t think farmers were objecting to those particular actions.

Barry Gardiner: You took part in the consultation.

Fiona James: What they were saying was, overall, that they want to have the flexibility to do actions in a way that works for them, and as these things were originally—

Q414       Barry Gardiner: Providing incentives doesn’t stop flexibility. It encourages you to do it.

Mark Spencer: It may well be, though, that they deliver those things without being paid to do it because it is good farming practice, so we need to make sure that we are using taxpayers' money to motivate them to do the things that they might not do without that incentive. Applying farmyard manures and organic matter to soil is good for farming practice and good for the soil. It also makes good economic sense without the necessity of taxpayers’ money to motivate that practice. So I think there is an argument to say that we can focus our energy on other outcomes and other incentives and still maintain that amount of organic matter being—

Q415       Barry Gardiner: That seems to me an eminently sensible answer if it is true that these practices are going to be part of every farmer’s natural workload to improve their soil structure.

Mark Spencer: Yes.

Q416       Barry Gardiner: But if there is any doubt about that, it seems to me that perhaps the emphasis has been taken off something that we know works, we know is good practice, and that will deliver the sort of improvement of our soil structure that we want.

Let’s move on, then. We have heard about the need for a more circular economy, and for farming to increase the supply of organic inputs, and the Government were due to announce their response to a consultation conducted by REA, the Association for Renewable Energy & Clean Technology, when it was looking at composting and anaerobic digestion. You were due to respond to that consultation, but you haven’t. Why is that?

Mark Spencer: If I am honest, I am not sure where we are at with that consultation. I will have to check the answer to that, rather than—

Q417       Chair: Write to us on that.

Mark Spencer: Yes, I will have to write. I don’t know where we are at with that consultation. To be straight with you, I do have some concerns about the composting industry and the amount of plastic. Getting households to make sure they don’t put plastic into their recycling composting bin is quite challenging. There are a number of examples where you end up with a percentage of plastic waste within that compost, which is then applied to farmland.

In my constituency, I have seen examples where you end up with small amounts of plastic wasteplant pots, bin bags and such matter. Educating constituents not to put plastic waste in their composting bin will be a huge help, and I am stepping outside my ministerial duty here. This is very much DLUHC. I think we can all help by educating our constituents that they can have a huge impact on the environment by not allowing that plastic to end up in their composting bins.

Chair: Maybe by just composting and using it in their garden, rather than giving it to the council to sort out.

Mark Spencer: If you are lucky enough to have a garden. Of course, there will be constituents up and down the country that aren’t privileged to have that.

Barry Gardiner: He is a rural MP. If you live in the city, like me, it is not always possible for our residents to do this.

Mark Spencer: Of course.

Q418       Barry Gardiner: People are also concerned about soil contamination; you mentioned plastics, but there is also contamination from organic inputs. How are you proposing to minimise those risks? Through testing requirements, so that users know precisely what they are spreading on their land? What other mechanisms are you proposing?

Mark Spencer: Again, it is quite important to measure the organic matter that you are adding to your land. Of course, you don't want to introduce heavy metals or something of that nature, which will cause damage to it. It is good farming practice to measure that manure and to understand the nutrient level of the manure that you are applying, and that is something that we should seek to encourage and make sure that land managers and farmers understand.

Q419       Barry Gardiner: Yes. The NFU argued that greater capital investment and greater support from the Government, in both digestive and manure storage, could allow for more appropriate and more precise application of these organic inputs. It would also avoid farmers refusing offers of manure and slurry because of capacity issues. Have you any proposals to assist farmers in that regard?

Mark Spencer: Yes. Obviously, there are capital grants available for slurry systems to make sure that that slurry is stored in the right way.

Barry Gardiner: The slurry infrastructure grant.

Mark Spencer: Yes. That also extends to—

Q420       Barry Gardiner: It doesn’t cover digestate, does it?

Mark Spencer: It doesn’t, but there is quite a lot of profit margin being made by some of those companies that are generating digestate through anaerobic digestion. It would probably be wrong to ask the taxpayer to support the management of that from a fairly profitable sector of the economy.

There is also a benefit to farmers in that organic matter, and I think we have seen a move away from free digestate, which has been available to farmers, to a financial cost to collecting that digestate, given the price of ammonium nitrate and artificial fertilisers. Those manures do have a financial value, and that has created a marketplace, I suppose, but it is also a recognition of how important farmers think organic matter is on their farm.

Q421       Chair: Finally, we have been told that guidance for improving soils could be better drafted, more accessible and more specific to different land types and uses. What are you doing to give farmers more cohesive guidance that caters for a wide variety of soil types and different types of farming practices?

Mark Spencer: Obviously, the land use framework will be a big part of working out what different types of land we have. Not only do the Government have a part to play here, but the private sector also has a big role to play in understanding the differences between different soil types, and how they will respond to different techniques, different manures and different fertilisers. We can all have an input into that and work out the best practice and the best farming techniques to get the most out of that soil.

Where there is a big challenge is certainly in lowland peat, because we are seeing the breakdown of lowland peat soils at a dramatic rate. Some of that—

Q422       Chair: In Lincolnshire, they have this metal post, haven't they, that was level with the ground at one point.

Mark Spencer: Yes.

Chair: Sion is nodding, yes.

Mark Spencer: Some estimates suggest that those soils could run out within 10, 15, or 20 years. That is clearly not a sustainable model, so we need to think very long and hard not only about the farming practices within those areas but how we manage the water and the water tables within those areas, because dampening that peat slows down its breakdown and its greenhouse gas emissions, but also preserves it for the future. We can think about different crops and different techniques to help make that more sustainable going forward.

Q423       Chair: Okay. Some farmers are almost evangelical in their enthusiasm for new soil management techniques—people that you would probably bump into if you go to Groundswell. What more could you do to support farmer-led research and sharing of best practice between farmers? Because often farmers are more likely to take advice from another farmer than from some adviser.

Mark Spencer: Yes. I think Groundswell is a very good example of where farmers engage with each other and look at some of those techniques. I think Cereals was another good example. They are different sides of the same coin. What I am seeing across the whole sector is people who want to engage, look at new science, look at new techniques, look at different practices and learn from other people. The more we can do to encourage the sharing of that data, that information and that practice, the more positive outcomes we will see.

Q424       Chair: There are a lot of very shiny direct drills and Min-Till drills at Groundswell and Cereals. Many smaller farmers are probably not in that sort of ballpark to be investing in that. Have you looked at maybe giving grants for second-hand machinery? Drills are nothing new. There are quite a few around in the market. Would that be one way of getting smaller farmers on board?

Mark Spencer: We have looked at grants for second-hand machinery. The truth is that regulating that and stopping fraud from taking place feels quite difficult. If there is a grant available for a piece of equipment, you can see someone with the wrong motivation getting together with another party with the wrong motivation and creating a scam. We cannot find a way of preventing that in the second-hand share market.

Q425       Chair: I was at a slurry tanker manufacturer in Northern Ireland recently, and it was building a good market in the European Union, particularly in Spain. We were told that the Spanish grant system would only pay grants for a slurry tanker made in the European Union and, therefore, it had lost its market completely. Have you looked at any incentives that could be put in place to encourage people to buy British machinery using Government money grants?

Mark Spencer: That sounds like a breach of WTO rules to me. That sounds illegal, but I—

Chair: That is what is happening in Spain.

Mark Spencer: In the absence of my lawyer, I hesitate to comment. Is that a fact? That sounds inappropriate.

Chair: We were in the factory and were told that the market in Spain had disappeared, because there is a big grant for slurry tankers, and it is only available if you buy a tanker made in the European Union.

Mark Spencer: I shall investigate that claim.

Chair: Yes. We can give you the details of the slurry tanker manufacturer. Anyway, Minister, we have come to the end of our questions. Thank you very much indeed. You have given very helpful evidence, and I thank your officials as well for supporting you when necessary, which wasn’t very often. I call the meeting to a close.