Written Evidence submitted by The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (SH0034)


Executive summary

1. The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence on soil health to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

2. UKCEH is an independent, not-for-profit research institute carrying out excellent environmental science with impact. We have a long history of investigating, monitoring and modelling environmental change and take a whole systems approach to understanding the environment, how it sustains life, and the human impact on it.

3. Our research spans physical, biological and chemical soil processes. We predict how soils may change under future scenarios of land use and climate change. Our science provides the evidence that enables integrated approaches for healthy soils.

4. UKCEH runs national soil monitoring programmes across Great Britain, as well as enhanced monitoring in Wales and Northern Ireland. We are currently contributing to the design of a national soil survey through Defra’s Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment Programme (NCEA). Through the NCEA, we have also been commissioned by Natural England to establish a network of peatland monitoring systems, supporting work on the England Peat Map.

5. We would be delighted to discuss any of the recommendations in this submission with the Committee.



Question 1: 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? 

We suggest that there are three key elements to effectively measuring progress towards managing soils sustainably by 2030, although it is disappointing that the target in the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 is now reduced to 40% of agricultural land sustainably managed by 2028, increasing to 60% by 2030.

a)      A soil health strategy, supported by metrics and an action plan

The commitments originally proposed in the Soil Health Action Plan for England (Shape) are still important and relevant. To provide the protection soil needs, we suggest creating a soil health strategy, supported by objectives, metrics and clear actions for protecting and restoring soils. This would put soils on an equal footing to other natural assets such as air, water and biodiversity.


b)     A structured, nationally representative soil monitoring programme.

A unified national soil monitoring programme is needed to measure vital soil properties that are critical for people and for nature. We suggest it should have have the following characteristics:

We recognise many of these elements are included in the new national soil survey which is part of the Ecosystem Survey of the NCEA which UKCEH have helped to design. Additional aspects it would be useful to address include:


c)      Tools, guidance and support for farmers and landowners.

Farmers and landowners need tools, guidance and support to monitor and improve soil health on their land. They need field by field evidence, which should include benchmarking to enable them to see where they fit into the national picture and to set targets for improvement. A range of advice is now available building on the SFI standard approach and the SHDB tools, as well as the new UKCEH Countryside Survey Soil Health Webtool which provides benchmark data for all major soil types and land uses using our 40 year record of structured monitoring data across England and Great Britain. Defra could review and approve effective tools to support soil health improvement and potentially support their integration.


Challenges in gathering soil health data and ways to overcome them include:

a)      The perception that soil monitoring is expensive

Soil monitoring is no more costly than other forms environmental monitoring (water quality, air quality, biodiversity), but has not been a priority so will require investment.

b)     The perception that soils change slowly

Soil change can be fast (for example, significant erosion can occur in a day) or slow (soil organic matter may change over five years). This is in line with timelines for reporting consistent trends in many other natural assets.

c)      The perception that soils are variable

Soil is no more or less variable than other ecological, atmospheric and hydrological assets. Soils generally stay where they are and do not have the 'flow' dynamics of many other assets such as water (e.g. floods, droughts and tides), air (e.g. transboundary air movements) and biodiversity (e.g. migrating birds). Repeat sampling in set locations enables us to overcome this perceived barrier.

d)     The perception is soil is a private asset rather than a public good

Much of our soil is privately owned. However, degradation leads to many issues which have an impact further afield. These include soil carbon loss (contributing to climate change); sediment and nutrient loss (affecting water quality downstream); and compaction (rapid rainfall runoff contributing to flood peaks), for example. We recognise the need to regulate emissions from other industries due to this wider public impact and soil and agriculture should not be considered differently.


e)      Urban soils.

There is no current national urban monitoring programme in place although approaches are possible. For example: (i) a focus on public spaces gardens and parks in towns and cities could be a starting point tracking change in organic matter, compaction and contaminant levels using approaches already tested in national monitoring programmes; (ii) improved controls on construction and engineering projects including soil to landfill as laid out in the Soils and Stones Report by The Society of the Environment in 2021 could be adopted.


f)       Variable methods for sampling and analysis

The soil monitoring community came together to define a unified and agreed set of methods for the Environment Agency (Black et al, 2008*) previously and reported this to Defra to help overcome this issue. A standardised suite of methods is vital for comparability and assessing trends.


Moving forward, it is hoped the NCEA will provide the standard approach for monitoring (with some adaptation for farmer-led monitoring on their own land). This will enable all soil sampling to be benchmarked, and potentially combined with, this new representative national sample of the status of our soils.


Inevitably, differences in methods between commercial labs will continue but can be addressed by adoption of standardised analytical methods and associated quality assurance.


It would be beneficial is Defra could define a standard set of accredited approaches for both sampling and analysis and reporting going forward to help reduce at least some sources of variability. , and supported by accreditation by Defra of methods and labs.


* Reference: H Black, P Bellamy, R Creamer, D Elston, B Emmett, Z Frogbrook, G Hudson, C Jordan, M Lark, A Lilly, B Marchant, S Plum, J Potts, B Reynolds, R Thompson and P Booth (2008) Environment Agency SC060073.


g)      Need to standardise molecular approaches

Molecular tools such as DNA sequencing of soil biodiversity have great potential to be used to understand soil health and the ecosystem services that soil delivers and has been collected in various soil monitoring programmes dating back to 2007. However, there is a need to standardise molecular approaches and reporting metrics in order to set national baselines and to understand change over time. This standardised approach should be adopted for the new national soil monitoring programme.


Question 2: Do current regulations ensure that all landowners/land managers maintain and/or improve soil health? If not, how should they be improved?

There are few current regulations to protect soil health.

Now outdated rules on cross-compliance for those in receipt of EU CAP payments stated that farmers in receipt of such payments had to ensure their land was in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC). Three of the GAEC standards covered soil (GAEC 4,5 and 6) and addressed erosion, organic matter and soil cover. However, these standards provided limited protection for soils in practice since they were insufficiently broad to protect and retore soil health and, as identified in the 2016 Parliament EAC Soil Health Enquiry, they were not enforced in the UK.

To be effective, any new regulations should be accompanied by meaningful inspection and enforcement either through removal of public funding if land is under contract for receipt of payments and/or fines as for other assets which impact on our air, water or biodiversity assets.


Question 3: 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?

The standards are a good first step in helping to engage and support land managers to track the health of their own land and soil. To generate auditable data useful for national statistics and to support a move to results-based payments, professional surveyors are likely to be required, perhaps on a five-year cycle, supported by a suitable level of inspection and enforcement.

The standards do not currently cover the full range of risks and opportunities for soil or all land types. Specific threats to soils include: compaction; loss of organic matter / organic carbon; erosion; acidification; eutrophication, contamination/pollution including bio-risks and loss of biodiversity.

These threats map directly onto a wide range of opportunities, for example, halting the loss of soil organic carbon from soils will help achieve net zero; soil health directly supports biodiversity both above and below-ground.

They also have implications for the success of a wide range of government plans, strategies, policies and reporting structures including the 25 Year Plan, net zero, biodiversity net gain, the 30 by 30 target agreed at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Montreal, and for natural capital accounting.

A final risk associated with public good payments is the offshoring or displacement of food and fibre production and soil footprints to land outside the ELM scheme, either to other parts of the UK or to other countries. To avoid this, such activity needs to be tracked and thinking across government needs to address fundamental constraints on the many pressures on our productive land. Without changes in attitudes to waste, our diet and health it is hard to see how pressure can be alleviated on our land without offshoring production to other parts of the world.


Question 4: 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?

Levers for change could include, for example:

a)      Innovation

Government support for a network of 'Living Labs' for soil which promote new technologies and showcase outcomes to support peer to peer learning. These could be developed with a wide range of stakeholders encouraging uptake, including the farming community, representatives from Government departments, the food and fibre processing chains including waste, land managers more widely e.g. the woodland industry, academics, educators, soil advisers, and land advisers

b)      Professional advisers

Access to independent accredited advisers and soil consultants capable of professional sampling and providing support to landowners to manage soil sustainably and monitor outcomes using standardised approaches, nationally robust benchmarks and accredited laboratories.

c)      Education and targeted campaigns

Better soil education for policy makers and other influencers, business, educators and the public. Targeted campaigns to raise awareness of the need to prioritise soil health and how to do this.


Question 5: What does UK Government need to do to tackle other stressors on soil health such as soil contamination?

Actions to consider include:


February 2023