Written evidence submitted by Julia Cooper, Principal Researcher Crop Diversity & Agronomy, Organic Research Centre (SH0047)

The Organic Research Centre (ORC) is the UK’s leading independent organic research organisation. We are a small charity and we drive our own research agenda to tackle global issues by acting locally, finding community-based solutions for farmers and their supply chains.

Our in-the-field research and knowledge exchange activity enables the transition to naturally healthy and resilient farming systems. We build evidence and understanding of the positive impact of organic and agroecological farming, and practical information to help farmers and growers do it better. We work in a diverse range of farming systems and have projects with both conventional and organic farmers. We host the knowledge exchange platform Agricology (https://www.agricology.co.uk/) which provides information and advice on sustainable farming “regardless of labels”. Full details of ORC’s activities are found on our website: https://www.organicresearchcentre.com/

Please see below for my responses to some of the questions you have posed in this consultation. I would be happy to speak to the Committee if you want to explore these comments in more detail.

  1. How can the Government measure progress towards its goal of making all soils sustainably managed by 2030?

There are various farming practices that are well evidenced/proven to build healthy soils that will sustain agricultural production in the future and support a resilient farming sector in the UK. The new movement towards regenerative agriculture espouses these practices, but there is nothing new about most of them. Maintaining diverse crop rotations, using cover crops to build soil fertility, and integrating animals into farming systems have all been core practices within organic farming standards for the last ~50 years. If the government wants to measure progress towards its goal of making all soils sustainably managed by 2030 its first priority should be to promote conversion of land to organic farming and to support the existing organic farming sector. Simple monitoring of the areas of land under organic management can be used as a proxy for monitoring progress towards this goal. As a parallel approach, the use organic farming practices (as described above) within conventional farming systems should be incentivized within ELMS and areas of land where these practices are used should be monitored. Some of this has already started with the SFI soils standards, but more could be done. Specifically, more promotion of mixed farming will facilitate the transition to systems which build soil health.

  1. What are the challenges in gathering data to measure soil health and how can these barriers be overcome?

There are two main challenges with measuring soil health. First, appropriate and reproducible indicators of soil health must be identified that are relatively easily and inexpensively assessed either directly by the farmer/land manager, or by a soil testing laboratory; these results must be linked to accurate information on ranges of results for good, moderate or poor soil health. The AHDB’s Soil Health Scorecard addresses this challenge by providing a list of indicators and a simple traffic light system for interpretation (https://ahdb.org.uk/soil-biology-and-soil-health-partnership ). This list of indicators could form a basis for a national monitoring system.

The second challenge is more difficult and relates to spatial variability in soil properties and the difficulties associated with determining the appropriate location and number of sample points to assess soil health. Remote sensing technologies like soil conductivity measurements offer some opportunities to map the variability of soil properties across a landscape and to use this information to design a targeted, “smart” soil sampling protocol. These technologies are already used by some agronomy companies to help them to design soil sampling methods for nutrient availabilities; these approaches could be adapted for efficient approaches to soil sampling for soil health.

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

The soils standards in the SFI are a first step towards incentivizing better soil health. Soil organic matter is a keystone property which builds soil health and is a strong indicator of a healthy soil. The requirement to monitor SOM, report values to Defra, add organic matter and design a management plan that addresses problems identified in the initial assessment seem like a good strategy.

Within existing CS agreements, the encouragement of ley phases (GS4) within arable rotations has been a positive step; integration of leys into arable rotations is a proven strategy to promote improved soil health (see: Zani et al. Soil Use and Management (2022) 38(1) 448-465)

  1. Will the standards under ELMS have sufficient ambition and flexibility to restore soils across different types of agricultural land?

No comment

  1. What are the threats and opportunities for soil health as ELMS are introduced?

There are threats that the payments provided under the SFI will not be sufficient to incentivize all farmers to take up practices which build soil health.

  1. 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?

The current problems with soil health in agricultural land in the UK are due to the intensification and specialization of farming during the last century that has resulted in a dramatic decline in mixed farming enterprises and a decoupling of the arable/horticultural and livestock sectors. This problem won’t be solved by piecemeal approaches to restoring soil health like the small payments for actions as currently prescribed in the Sustainable Farming Incentive. A change in our agricultural system is needed that reintegrates livestock into arable and horticultural enterprises and allows better distribution of manures to intensively farmed land, as well as promoting diversification of crop rotations and use of ley phases in ALL arable/horticultural rotations: in effect, a conversion to organic farming practices on all farmed land. The transition to this new, 21st century agricultural system needs to be facilitated through a design process that considers the agricultural potential of our land base and healthy diets. The Sustainable Food Trust’s 2022 report (Feeding Britain from the Ground Up) provides a useful blueprint for implementing this transition. It proposes a conversion to organic farming practices, acknowledging some declines in crop yields but projecting improvements in environmental outcomes and healthier diets for all.

The Government can support a transition to this new agricultural system by:

a)      Mandating ley phases on all arable/horticultural land

b)      Supporting intensive arable/horticultural/livestock farmers to diversify their enterprises and land use

c)       Supporting farmers to transition to organic farming which provides a ready-made set of practices designed to improve and maintain soil health

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

No comment


March 2023