Written Evidence submitted by The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA)(SH0054)

Introduction

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) is the trade body for the UK horticulture and Gardening industry, representing garden retailers, plant and tree growers, domestic landscapers and manufacturers of garden products.

Please note: The scope of this response from the HTA is limited to non-edible (ornamental) horticulture and focusses on the growing of plants and trees for the wholesale and retail sectors rather than edible produce and cut flowers.

Background

‘Ornamental’ horticulture is a sector that makes a significant contribution to our environment, supplying the plants and trees that play a crucial role in tackling climate change and carbon reduction. The horticultural industry underpins half of the goals set out in the Government’s 25-year environment plan.

Industry value

The industry is worth over £28bn to GDP, supports around 674,000 jobs and generates £6.3bn in tax revenues. UK plant and tree production is worth around £1.6bn, supporting over 31,000 jobs. According to the Oxford Economics/Foresight Factory report, Growing a

Green Economy[1] by 2030 the industry can deliver a £13bn boost to the UK economy, supporting an extra 39,000 new jobs – with UK plant and tree growers contributing £2.4bn

of this and an extra 7,000 jobs1.

Gardening and horticulture play a significant role in the nation’s mental and physical wellbeing, making a hugely positive impact on people’s lives. From 2019 to 2020, 3 million more people took up gardening, nearly half of who are under 45. 30 million people now garden regularly making it the UK’s most popular hobby.

 

Soils and Soil Health overview

Soils have multiple and vital functions and come in an array of different types with differing uses in the UK.

Whilst a key function of soil has been to produce crops (both edible & non-edible) it is now recognised that healthy soil also means excellent carbon sequestration, better flood alleviation, gains in biodiversity, additional natural capital, and positive mitigations against climate change. This means soils must be sustainable, need to be protected and must fulfil multiple roles.

Protecting a soil does not mean its unproductive, however many factors must be taken into consideration to address soil protection whilst growing a crop which raises many questions.

Soil health in general is a balancing act. Although there are technically 700 different soil types in the UK due to many variations of underlying rock types and variations in climate, generally agriculture and horticulture. Non-edible growers take advantage of a few of those soil types.

Soil health for growers is also a balancing act between utilising the soil to produce a healthy and successful crop without damaging it. Many crops in the non-edible horticultural sector are long term, spanning several if not many seasons, so soil health is a critical factor in their success.

To produce a healthy crop, growers must balance soil structure with nutrient availability as well as access to water. However, growers also recognise the need to bring other elements into the equation to ensure total soil health – which, if a long term view is taken, brings extended benefits for current and future crops as well as the wider environment.

It is understood the Government's ambition is to improve the health of all soils. Horticultural growers have always understood the value of excellent soil health, yet growers have struggled to invest to the necessary degree to move the boundaries of technology in order to ensure the soil they work with is in top condition.

The HTA believe that this represents a disjointed approach in the Governments thinking, and that there has been no concerted effort to recognise the value of non-edible crops and encourage and support the sectors growth in order to achieve the environmental ambitions of the policy makers.

The ability of growers of non-edible crops to invest in their businesses and therefore their soil has been held back by the lack of support, and the inability to access it has been related to the smaller hectarage of land that non-edible growers operate on. This then restricts access to financial support available through the Rural Payments Agency, including Countryside Stewardship Grants. Supports available such as Forestry Grants & Woodland Creation schemes have done little to assist growers with increasing production, utilising new techniques and soil heath issues, and there is a large gap in support available for non-edible non-forestry growers.

One example from 2021 was the initial pilot of the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI). Despite assurances from Defra that our sector would be included, in order to be eligible to be one of the 2000 businesses on the SFI pilot scheme you had to be registered with the Rural Payments Agency (i.e. be most likely a farmer). The other two strands ‘Local Nature Recovery’ and ‘Landscape Recovery’ also primarily referenced farmers.

Another recent example of an inaccessible fund that was launched by Defra this January was the “Improving Farm Productivity” fund (within the Farming Transformation Fund) which  specifically excluded non-edible growers. Once again, an opportunity missed to improve the ability of grower businesses to deliver on the environmental ambitions of the Government.

If government would now take the opportunity to invest in that necessary support for growers, the return on investment for the environment, for soil health, and for productivity will be far larger and be realised much quicker than might otherwise be the case.

Soil health & the non-edible & environmental horti sector

As previously mentioned, non-edible horticultural growers cover a smaller hectarage of land in total than traditional agricultural production. Crops grown tend to remain in the soil for a longer period and represent a higher value to the grower.

Therefore, healthy soil is of paramount importance, as a crop failure represents a severe blow to the business and the loss of any lands ability to continue to grow makes it difficult to continue.

There is little annual production in the soil within non-edible production systems, with the main outdoor crop types being trees and other woody subjects, hedging, roses, and plant kept for the ‘mother stock’ for propagation purposes. Shorter term crops include tree seedlings, bulbs and some herbaceous perennials (e.g., paeonies).

Historically non-edible crop production has employed applications of chemicals that have had a xenobiotic [2]action on the soil biota. However, with the withdrawal of many such chemicals, and the recognition of soil biota to the importance of healthy soil, growers have embraced more harmonious practices. This needs to be recognised in the new soil standards under ELMS.

Whilst there is still a focus on crop production, weed control and soil sterilisation these are now approached through more mechanical means. Soil compaction remains a real concern, particularly when growing trees and hedging for transplanting elsewhere in the landscape which need to be lifted.

For the future growers would like to concentrate on utilising lighter touch techniques, allowing soil biota to flourish, enabling correct nutrient uptake and moisture availability for crops. New techniques such as intercropping, using living mulches and planting for macro and micro biota all have potential. Accessing those new techniques in a timely manner is of key importance, and Government need to recognise and act on this.

Challenges

Challenges for the sector include being recognised for its significant positive contribution to climate change, both when growing in the nursery and also when lifted and replanted into the wider environment.

There are gaps in knowledge and research that need to be filled. These include the carbon sequestration abilities of these longer term ‘crops’, particularly as many have long lives e.g., mature trees, hedging and garden perennials. Also, how the subjects contribute to ‘in-field’ biodiversity before lifting and better techniques to ensure nutrients are held in the soil for longer and replaced quicker when the crop is lifted.

Another area that has challenges is that there is little information giving clarity to non-edible growers over what they can and can’t access in the way of support, so often when an opportunity does come along, there is no communication channel for growers to realise and engage in it. This means a lower uptake of such support, giving the false impression that growers do not need to access it.

All of the above actions will contribute to better soil health and mitigate the effects of climate change and have the potential to grow a green industry to impactful proportions.

Case Studies

HTA would be more than happy to provide case studies from HTA member businesses to illustrate the points made in this submission.

 

Questions

In response to the specific questions posed by the Committee: -

  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? 

For the non-edible / ornamental sector the point is not whether soils used to grow crops are poorly managed, but more that they are recognised as part of the measurement programme. The ambition states all soils should be sustainably managed by 2030, so measuring our sector in addition to the agricultural sector should be included.

As mentioned in the introductory comments, non-edible horticulture tends to be on a smaller hectarage, so growers know their soils intimately because each square metre of land is important for production.  Gathering data from those growers, whilst potential administratively more burdensome in the initial stages, should not be onerous in the longer term. Information on inputs and status of soils employed could be gathered, whilst rewards for taking part in data gathering could mean inclusion in Government support schemes.

It is the recognition required that is important to non-edible, environmental horticulture. The fact the sector has a part to play in this ambition, not least because of the crops it grows have a positive contribution to make to sustainability as well as its specific contribution to soil health to aid Govt ambitions, needs to be understood.

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

In the case of our sector, the answer is no. This is because the contributing parties (i.e. growers) are not included in wider Government land policy, with access to ELMS & Technology Innovation Funds and many sustainability initiatives curtailed. Therefore, the opportunity to demonstrate and capture positive contributions is missed and also the essential ability for growers who crop in soils, even if on a smaller acreage, to be recognised for their positive natural capital contribution.

 

  1. 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 HTA do not believe so, because as highlighted previously, there is a section of contributing parties (i.e. non-edible growers) that cannot access information or support required to contribute to the regulations. Access to ELMs, Technology Innovation Grants, and the Sustainable Farming Initiative are essential for all growers who crop in soils, regardless of whether on a smaller acreage or not. The natural capital benefits of non-edible crops should be recognised rather than size of land parcel or the type of crop grown.

 

It would also be expected that ELMs schemes would have the flexibility to include a wider piece on restoration of degraded peat soilsSoils containing peat makes up 9.8% of soils in England & Wales[3]   and whilst the horticultural sector has long utilised peat from a variety of sources for growing purposes it has traditionally extracted peat from 0.04% of peatland, with the figure falling rapidly. This is no longer the case with the sector quickly moving away from using peat and into responsibly source growing media. The Government has a part to play in facilitating this move, and whilst legislation is forthcoming to ensure peat is no longer traded, the sector needs an ambitious programme of support to transition as speedily as possible into responsible growing media.

 

Soil health is about ecosystem health – plants; animals; humans – and feeding into sustainability, human health, biodiversity, water quality, climate change as well as food security.

 

We have already highlighted that non-edible growers supply tree saplings and with current tree planting rates falling very short this is an area to be actively encouraged. The National Audit Office’s Planting Trees in England Report states: “Availability of seeds and saplings is a critical risk to Defra achieving its tree-planting target. Nurseries require between two and four years to grow saplings before they are ready to be sold for planting. COVID-19 stoppages have reduced expected sapling supply by an estimated 10% over the next two to three years. Defra does not yet know whether suppliers are ready to meet rapidly increasing demand, particularly of native broadleaf species.” The targets in England alone equate to 7,500 hectares per year for tree-planting by 2024-25; at least a three-fold increase from current rates. It is clear that actively encouraging good soil health and supporting that would enable growers to better address requirement rates for tree saplings.

 

  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 principles of quality plant production in the soil (and indeed any other growing media) should be held in the highest esteem, whether producing food or non-food products. This means a slower growth cycle, better breeding, less inputs resulting in higher quality, longer lasting and, in the case of food, higher nutritional content.

So while the HTA can make no comment on the question of food production, we do offer an observation that land use should be seen as a much wider issue than solely a food production point of view. Government need to remember that agriculture is not just food production, but is also responsible for producing other widely used plant based products which have increasing importance in climate change mitigation.

Food production is only a part of maintaining excellent soil health, and this should be reflected right through the supply chain from the raw materials right through to the finished product.

 

 

February 2023


[1] Oxford Economics and Foresight Factory, ‘Growing a Green Economy: The importance of ornamental horticulture and

landscaping to the UK’, Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group, September 2021.

https://hta.org.uk/uploads/assets/a4e1bad2-866b-4623-aa33ef712689d52a/Industry-growth-report-OHRG.pdf

[2] Xenobiotic is a term used to describe chemical substances that are foreign to animal life and thus includes such examples as plant constituents, drugs, pesticides, cosmetics, flavourings, fragrances, food additives, industrial chemicals and environmental pollutants.

[3] Cranfield Soil & Agricultural Institute, LandIS Soilscapes, https://www.landis.org.uk/soilscapes/index.cfm