Written Evidence submitted by Bill Grayson (SH0098)


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? 


There should be a standardised systematic process for collecting and collating all appropriate soil health data for land being managed as part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). More help and guidance should be provided for farmers to ensure that the data they collect is directly relevant to soil health and can be easily collated. This type of monitoring should be made available under SFI for soils across all categories of land use and farming system using standardised methodologies that will enable more effective comparison of their properties. Including a requirement for soil testing on all land entered into SFI would provide a significant boost to the amount and coverage of soil-health data for England.  Farmers should be asked to supply relevant information about the kind of management and types and quantities of inputs that they have been using in order to better interpret the differences observed. The range of parameters tested should be expanded to include new ones that are more appropriate indicators of soil health and not be restricted to pH and P, K and Mg availability. Measurement of soil organic matter (SOM), a crucial measure of soil health, must be part of this assessment, but extended to include samples taken at lower depths, going down to at least 50cm.  This should also include estimates of the different fractions of SOM since this has a significant bearing on the soil’s capacity for retaining organic matter. Including soil mineral structure as part of the assessment would provide a predictor of a soil’s capacity for storing carbon, whilst measures of the fungal component will indicate its ability to sequester and hold on to new carbon.


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

Current regulations for soil management seem to be having little or no benefit for even maintaining soil health, as overall, there are significant concerns about its state, with current predictions for the number of future harvests set at worryingly low levels. Soil does not appear to merit a specific mention in the Government’s recently launched Environmental Improvement Plan, although ‘healthy soils’ is included as one of the key environmental indicators (E7) in the Outcome Indicator Framework ( Indicator: E7 - Healthy soils - Outcome indicator framework for the 25 Year Environment Plan (defra.gov.uk)). However, this only lists a number of parameters by which soil health might be assessed, and gives no indication about how they might lead to its improvement, stating instead that this is an element of the framework that is still being prepared. Completion of this framework would be a significant towards meeting their target for soil health:


Improving our approach to soil management: by 2030 we want all of England’s soils to be managed sustainably, and we will use natural capital thinking to develop appropriate soil metrics and management approaches


Unfortunately seven years seems like an unrealistically short time scale for achieving sustainable management of all England’s soils, when we are still awaiting the publication of the framework that is intended to guide the process of delivering this outcome.


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?


It is hard to tell yet how ELM standards will help to improve the health of agricultural soils or indeed, those found in the wider landscape. The only soil-specific standards announced so far are intended to reward farmers for doing assessments of arable/horticultural and improved grassland soils. These assessments will include a range of criteria, many of which are important for soil health, including the type and structure of the soil being assessed, the potential risks it faces (e.g. erosion), and any structural problems (e.g. compaction). The requirement for producing a soil management plan is a positive initiative, together with the need to carry out follow-up assessments to monitor progress. However the benefits are currently only to be made available on cultivated fields or improved grassland and are not being extended to include permanent pasture, woodland or any semi-natural vegetation types, which I feel is missed opportunity to learn more about the benefits for soil health that a more ecologically-grounded form of farming can deliver.

Further opportunities for improving soil health through ELMs would come from offering additional support for undertaking a more detailed assessment of the SOM composition, according to its different fractions and their longevity within the soil. It would also be useful to consider how these different SOM fractions varied with increasing depth in the soil profile. Equally helpful would be to include direct assessment of the actual soil biology, to obtain specific information about the composition and functioning of its living community (e.g. fungal:bacterial ratio, estimates of abundance of earthworms and other soil fauna, number of mychorrhizal connections)

Perhaps the biggest threat to soils arising from the launch of ELMs would be a lack of take-up by farmers should they decide it fails to offer sufficient financial incentive or lacks coherent advice and guidance. This would mean they instead continue managing their land with high inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in order to achieve maximum yields from large areas of mono-cropping.

There are also some more specific issues relating to the requirements for certain actions in the standards. It is concerning to note that the recommendations for destroying a winter cover crop prior to sowing the main crop in spring make no reference to the harm done to soil health if this is done by chemical means. Many farmers, given the choice, will prefer to do this with glyphosate-based sprays, a chemical known to have persistent antimicrobial properties that can adversely impact a wide range of soil biota, spread into adjoining habitats and enter the human food chain, something that is regularly detected as residues in foods being bought by consumers in England.

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 most beneficial change to the UK’s food and farming system would be a return to a mixed farming economy accompanied by a move away from continuous mono-cropping systems that rely on chemical inputs and intensive mechanical cultivations, interventions known to cause lasting damage to soil biota. Such a transition was recognized in DEFRA’s June 2021 Agricultural Transition Update:


Increased specialisation in the late twentieth century and the loss of livestock from the lowlands has led to a reduction in organic matter and a decline in soil health. Meanwhile the associated loss of rotation has stored up challenges with pests and diseases.


The Government could support this transition using annual and capital payments made available through ELMs for reinstating a grazed species-rich multi-year grassland phase as  a recognized component of all arable rotations. Research evidence now shows that this approach has distinct benefits for boosting soil biota and soil organic matter Diverse Forage – Swarm Hub .


Another way to promote the mixed farming agenda would be to give it prominence in the forthcoming ‘Land Use Framework’ that is due to be published by DEFRA later this year. This will set out a national strategy for helping ensure that the nation’s available land is managed to achieve the best possible balance  of outputs in terms of society’s competing needs for food, energy, timber, nature and the many ecosystem services that maintain health and well being of people and the planet. Without a well thought-out and appropriately managed strategy for steering land use outcomes it seems likely that market forces will continue to dominate the rural economy in ways that suit commercial interests rather than providing for the needs of society as a whole.


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

UK soils have been subjected to an ever-increasing barrage of chemical and physical stressors as modern farming practices have become ever more intense. Here again, promoting a return to mixed farming in which cattle and sheep enterprises are re-integrated into arable crop rotations would do much to alleviate this, helping to restore soil organic matter and boost fertility and allow farmers to avoid using so many expensive chemical inputs and mechanical interventions. This is because inclusion of a few years of legume-based  and herb-rich ley within an arable rotation provides a tried and tested way of disrupting the life cycles of many well–established crop diseases and pests. It can also reduce, or eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers, instead fuelling plant growth by increasing intrinsic fertility of the soil from addition of animal manure and root exudates from the herb-rich pasture.

Any reduction in applications of agro-chemicals will obviously lessen the impact of these pollutants on the soil biota, and limit their potential for polluting the wider environment. It will also result in correspondingly fewer passes of farm machinery, which, themselves, can be a major cause of compaction, especially if undertaken when the soil is too wet or waterlogged. The ruts or wheelings left by such traffic can create downwardly inclined channels along which water runs off during periods of heavy rainfall, often causing serious erosion at the soil surface. This is how large quantities of silt often end up in nearby waterways where the silting and turbidity it creates is harmful for aquatic life-forms.

The kind of regeneratively-aligned transition that is needed to avoid these harmful environmental impacts obviously represents a considerable change in direction for most farmers, and will only be achieved at sufficient speed and scale if it has full governmental  support. The Government has an important role to play by stating its support for such a change as clearly and as fully as possible, although this still needs to be backed up by provision of sufficient financial resources to ensure its delivery. This would also necessitate adequate funding for ELMs so that farmers embarking on this transition process could rely on receiving help with acquisition of new infrastructure and advice on implementation of new enterprises. Funding would also be needed for undertaking new lines of research to explore and identify synergies able to maintain optimal yields without compromising environmental health. These research findings along with more general advice about how each farm could transition to more soil-friendly practices would have to be disseminated through a well trained and properly funded network of  advisers, supported, perhaps, by a mentoring scheme in which farmers experienced in practising mixed farming are assigned to new practitioners to provide advice and support. 

This wholesale move towards a more regenerative way of producing our food would be greatly helped if the Government’s forthcoming Land Use Framework were to incorporate these same principles, The continuing roll-out of ELMS ought to facilitate this kind of transformative process, the latter being so clearly aligned with the new scheme’s multi-functional philosophy that DEFRA officials have gone to great lengths to emphasise throughout the co-design process. for ELMS.

Helping farmers to reduce their reliance on chemical inputs would not only help sustain a healthier, more nature-rich environment whilst providing a more resilient supply of nutritionally superior food, free of chemical residues but it would also boost the profitability of farm businesses choosing to embark on these changes. This is because such farms would find themselves freed from the ever-increasing cost-burden of intensive, input-driven monocultural production, which in the majority of cases would provide a better financial return on their gross output, even though the latter  may be somewhat lower in overall terms.

The prospect for delivering such a synergistic set of benefits for achieving gains in human, environmental and socio-economic health is an exciting one that should commend itself to Government. I very much hope that this coherent kind of vision will emerge from the land use framework  process and that this could help to build the momentum and commitment needed to achieve the Government’s target for improving the health of all of England’s soils by 2030. Restoring all of our soils in this way should provide a universally acceptable aim, allowing land managers and farmers across the country to come together to help each other develop a collective resilience in the face of increasing uncertainties about climate change and the economy.

February 2023