Written Evidence submitted by Applied Microbiology International (SH0024)

How can the Government measure progress towards its goal of making all soils sustainably managed by 2030? What are the challenges in gathering data to measure soil health how can these barriers be overcome? 

The UN Agency’s Intergovernmental Technical Group on Soils (ITPS) defines healthy soil as ‘the ability to sustain productivity, diversity and environmental services of terrestrial ecosystems’[1]. ‘Microbiome’ relates to the community of microorganisms (for example bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses) found in a particular environment[2]. It has been shown that soil microbiomes (aka the communities of microorganisms within soil) vary taxonomically between regions[3], making direct comparisons difficult. The focus should therefore be on comparing soil functions rather than taxonomy, in order to measure soil health.

It is worth considering the appropriateness of having a broad/generic metric (e.g., total soil organic matter content) to compare soils, which would provide a simple message for producers and policymakers. Organic matter content could be measured and reported by producers with incentives provided for reporting and for improvements. Sub-targets could also be used covering areas such as sustainable crop rotation[4] and minimising soil compaction, however these would be harder to measure.

There must be an understanding that measurements of soil health are context specific, and that their utility is greatly improved if measurements are considered as relative changes over time, rather than absolute numbers at a single point in time. This will allow land managers to be judged on whether their land management practises improve, maintain or reduce soil health.

It is also important to understand that we simply do not have a good handle on the range associated with many parameters as they pertain to soil heath. This requires a concerted effort to understand how management interacts with basic soil properties such as texture. Unless we have a better understanding of the term ‘soil health’, it will be difficult to provide meaningful measurements.

The USDA has provided some information that the UK could develop for UK practice[5]. They define soil health as ‘the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans’. They have also developed four principles for managing soil health, and a soil health assessment[6].

Do current regulations ensure that all landowners/land managers maintain and/or improve soil health? If not, how should they be improved?

While the interest in soil health continues to grow, much regulation focuses on prevention of pollution rather than directly improving soil health, however it would be difficult to form regulations on the latter when it’s still unclear how soil health should be measured. Clearer definitions and goals around soil health would be necessary before regulations on improving soil health could be put in place.

Will the standards under Environmental Land Management schemes have sufficient ambition and flexibility to restore soils across different types of agricultural land? What are the threats and opportunities for soil health as ELMs are introduced?

No, the standards under ELM schemes are not sufficiently ambitious or flexible. The sustainable farming incentive within the ELM focuses on macro scale, yet there are knowledge gaps regarding soil and plant microbiomes which need to be acknowledged to better inform what threats and opportunities there are. These are:

There is a good opportunity for the UK to really embrace and fully utilise its natural capital including microorganisms e.g. encourage arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) or other endophytes as biofertilizers. Biofertilizers are microorganisms that naturally increase plant nutrition[7].

What changes do we need to see in the wider food and agriculture sector to encourage better soil management and how can the Government support this transition? 

What does UK Government need to do to tackle other stressors on soil health such as soil contamination?

About Applied Microbiology International 

Applied Microbiology International is solving some of the world's greatest challenges by bringing the applied microbiology community together, across borders and disciplines, to enable meaningful collaboration that delivers scientific impact. With a strong focus on influencing international policy, we are organised around seven core UN Sustainable Development Goals and encourage partnership between academia and industry to increase our impact.


February 2023



[1] https://resoilfoundation.org/en/environment/healthy-soil-official-definition/

[2] https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Microbiome

[3] https://www.osti.gov/pages/servlets/purl/1615017

[4] https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/ra101-section/crop-rotation.shtml

[5] https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/natural-resource-concerns/soils/soil-health

[6] https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/natural-resource-concerns/soils/soil-health/soil-health-assessment

[7] https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2021.606815

[8] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/bioremediation