Written Evidence submitted by Conscious Plant – Save Soil (SH0099)


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?


The UK government in the past has acknowledged the state of soils through the Environmental Audit Committee (2016), and came up with a plan of action under the 25 year Environment Plan in 2018.  But there seems to be no plan of action and commensurate budgetary allocation to achieve the target of sustainable management of soils by 2030.


No clear Action Plan to achieve sustainable management of soils by 2030: There was one soil strategy that was created in 2009 (Safeguarding Our Soils). But all efforts taken towards managing soils are more ad hoc interventions instead of having a holistic intervention to help manage soils sustainably.


Lack of inter-departmental coordination: Soil as a resource falls under the purview of the Environment Agency, but as a fundamental resource for agriculture, its sustainable management lies with DEFRA.


Lack of biological  Indicators to track progress of sustainable soil management goal: There are no systematic approaches to measure progress made towards managing soils sustainably. The present indicators that measure soil health are made up of macro and micro nutrients that are needed by various crops grown on soil. But sustainable soil management only happens when the soil food web is reinstated in the soil. The present set of soil health indicators do not have biological indicators that measure the quantum of microbial life in soils.


Definition of healthy soils: Various types of soils have the capability to restore soil health depending on parental material, and agro-ecological conditions in which they are present. If there is no definition of healthy soil with quantitative numbers to define various soil health parameters including the biological life present in soil, measuring success in the direction of sustainable soil health management will be difficult.


Lack of  Soil Health Monitoring Mechanism: Soil health will be monitored as a part of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA). But the monitoring of soil health should be a regular affair where the soils of each farm are measured at a regular frequency of every year.


Not enough incentives:  The Sustainable Farming Incentive policy of 2022 is a promising start to encourage farmers to transition to sustainable agricultural practices to improve soil health. The incentives are clear and measurable. The lack of sufficient funding, a smooth application process, and a payment cycle, has been deterring farmers to transition. The farmer support ecosystems present now can be bolstered with a farmer-to-farmer learning platform like the Global Soil Doctors Programme run by the FAO.


Recommendation for Question 1:

  1. Have scientifically robust definitions for various soil types, with various parameters quantitatively bench marked to assess soil health, including the biological parameters. Under the Cross Compliance in England rules set up by DEFRA in 2015, the process to be followed for soil standard enforcement and associated payments to farmers, based on the results of soil inspection, is clearly articulated. The definitions of soil health, soil quality, soil security and soil resilience have been covered under the recent UK Parliamentary Post of January 2022 – Restoring Agriculture Soils. It will be best if the definitions for all these aspects are further elaborated and enshrined in law. At present, these feature only in the strategy document for Safeguarding the Soils of England. The definition of healthy soil under agriculture should also mention the need for a technically feasible % SOM across various soil types.
  2. Have a cohesive action plan to improve soil health but also build a clear database of sustainable soil management practices specific to various soil types.
  3. The single most important indicator of healthy soils of any type is % SOM of the soil. The UK can strategize on making significant headway on this parameter, as it has a far-reaching impact on soil health, covering a wide scope of issues. To ensure there is a clear tracking of soil health, work with a few indicators to assess any kind of sustainable soil management intervention, especially SOM and biological life in the soil.
  4. Build a map of SOM potential for various soil types temporally. Assess intervention of sustainable soil management in line with this map.
  5. Handhold farmers to adopt simple sustainable soil management practices relevant to the soil and agro ecological type of the farm.
  6. Educate farmers on the benefits of increase in SOM: The benefits in terms of reinforcing nutrient cycling and reducing nutrient leaching decreases the risk of soil erosion by improving soil structure, aeration, and water holding capacity. SOM also increases, long-term reliance on mineral fertilizers declines and soil biodiversity is enhanced. Resiliency of both the soil and the overall farm during weather extremes is directly linked to SOM.
  7. Establish a robust soil health monitoring system to track progress of the interventions to establish sustainable soil management.



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


The regulations that are applicable for agriculture soils of England are the Farming Rules for Water 2018. The GAEC (good agricultural and environmental conditions) also mandate farmers to achieve minimum soil cover, minimize soil erosion and maintain the organic matter in soil. Both these interventions were done to reduce the impact of agricultural practices on the environment (water) both through point and non point source pollutants from leaching of nutrients from agriculture soils.


The impact of the Farming Rules are not known due to the lack of any monitoring data gathered to assess it. Little data seems to have been gathered about the implementation, the number of people reached through the awareness campaign, the number of farmers whose behaviors were changed, and the number of farmers whose agriculture practices did not change.


The assessments of the above interventions have to be done through proxy indicators, like the health of surface and groundwater bodies. The fact that the health of rivers is only declining year on year indicates the failure in achieving the mandate of GAEC and Farmer Rules .



Recommendation for Question 2:

  1. Communicate the benefits of good practices towards increasing farmer income: These regulations were intended to curb the negative repercussions of agriculture on the environment. If the same sustainable soil management practices were to be disseminated by underlining the positive economic impact it will have on farmer livelihoods, there may be positive motivation towards changing agriculture practices, and therefore change in farmer behaviors.
  2. Measure delta % SOM in soils: The impact of any of the rule enforcements through a simple soil health indicator that reflects both the health of soil, and its ability to reduce the negative impacts of agricultural practices on the larger environment. This indicator should be an increase in SOM. Although this solution may seem simplistic, increasing SOM will nourish soil biology, bring life back to the soil, and in the process, address soil degradation, soil erosion, water scarcity, climate change and the larger wellbeing of society.


  1. Incentivize behavior change: It is imperative that farmers are supported to adopt relevant sustainable soil management practices such as agroforestry and cover cropping, to improve SOM and soil fertility, as well as their own livelihood. The present incentives from the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) are good enough to help farmers meet the expenses involved in adopting sustainable soil management practices.



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 incentives under the SFI scheme range from £22 and £40 per hectare, depending on the activity level. This may be a good support for people already following sustainable soil management practices like growing cover crops etc. However, they are not enough to transition farmers who at present do not follow sustainable soil management practices.


The levels of payment have to be based on the rate of change needed to meet sustainable soil management targets of 2030. The payments should be graded based on the type of interventions taken up by farmers on their soils. The payments should be commensurate to the expenditure incurred towards adopting sustainable soil management practices. These payments can be made for a 3-5 years transition period where input costs will overweigh the benefits of the new sustainable practices adopted by farmers.


The process of application for the incentives is not smooth, and the pay back of the incentives is not timely. These may also discourage the farmers from taking up the new practices.


Recommendation for Question 3:

  1. Pay incentives to at least cover a significant portion of the expenditure incurred by the farmers when adopting new sustainable soil management practices.
  2. Make it easy to apply to the scheme, and reduce the payment cycle.
  3. Build awareness around the scheme and the benefits of sustainable soil management practices.

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?



The interventions in the agriculture sector are usually focused on behaviour changes of the farmer, which amounts to pushing the farmers. The push to change farmer behavior will be hugely supported if the government were to also take steps towards bringing in the pull factor, or the demand from customers, for food from healthy soils. When farmers adopt sustainable soil management practices, it first leads to an increase in % SOM which in turn affects the biological life in soil. When the diversity of biological life in the soil interacts dynamically with plants grown on the soil, an increased sequestration of nutrition into these plants, both macro and micro, can be observed.


The present food labeling system of organic/ bio/ eco etc is to do with the agriculture practices followed in the production of food items. In packaged produce it's labeled as organic/ eco etc, with the ingredients label showing the nutritive value of the food. But there is no measure of nutritional value in raw food production. If the soil is rich and alive, the nutritive value of the food grown will be higher when compared to food grown in poor and weak soils. The easiest way to identify healthy and living soils is the % of SOM in the soil.


Additionally, the carbon credit rates in the last year have tripled as the European  Commission moved towards tighter targets. After COP26 at Glasgow, a global protocol for trading carbon credits and offsets was arrived at consensually. The carbon credits market is now more accessible to both farmers and corporations/ industries and financial investors. These markets can also be leveraged to accelerate

the process of transitioning farmers to SSM practices.



Recommendation for Question 4:

  1. Develop a labeling system that shows the % SOM of soils in which food is grown. Alongside this, we should also clearly articulate the various health, nutritional, and preventive health benefits of consuming such foods. As a result of this initiative, people would be more healthy, more productive, and more resilient – thereby leading to gains in man-days, and a lower stress on our health care systems. It is therefore evident that such a mark of superior quality food would have far more meaning than the current system of just trying to distinguish between so-called ‘organic’ and ‘non-organic’ produce.
  2. Differential pricing of products based on % SOM of soils in which produce is grown: Develop a system of pricing food produce that is corollary to % SOM of soils in which the food produce is grown.
  3. Consumer education and awareness generation: Build awareness among people on the benefits of consuming foods grown on higher % SOM soils, and increase the consumer willingness to pay for such goods. Thus making it financially attractive for farmers to adopt the sustainable soil management practices.


February 2023