Written evidence submitted by the Soil Association (SH0103)

Soil Association targets for soil health


By 2030, the Soil Association would like to see: 



Setting an ambitious target to halve pesticide and artificial fertiliser use will be key to driving the transformational changes needed on farms to help restore soils across the country. The overuse of these chemical inputs on farm soils can have devastating impacts on soil microbial functions and biochemical processes, altering soil communities, both in terms of diversity and quantity. When combined with ploughing, reduced crop diversity, acidification from nitrogen applications, and losses in organic matter, soil life is severely degraded.  


Research suggests that reduced soil life can affect crop growth, development and disease incidence, potentially resulting in a negative feedback loop leading to increased use of agrochemicals[1]. One major cause for concern is the reduction in arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal diversity and biomass in UK arable soils[2]. These are fungal networks associated with most crops that provide key benefits and are keystones within healthy soil communities. A shift away from chemical inputs and towards nature-friendly alternatives, such as organic, will be key to restoring soil life, and boosting the resilience of our food systems for future generations. 


-         25% of farmed land being organic, mirroring aims in the EU farm to fork strategy  


The UK should seek to match, if not exceed Europe’s growing organic farming to 25% of farmed land by 2030. This would drive a surge in practices which place soil health at their core.  


Organic standards are designed to ensure that regenerating soil health is a key priority for farmers. For example, artificial fertilisers and pesticides are banned to help build natural fertility, nutrient recycling and plant health. This all requires healthy, living soils.   


Evidence from hundreds of comparative studies has found organic farm soils (compared with non-organic):   





-          50% of farms using agroforestry systems  


The integration of agroforestry and farm woodland into the agriculture landscape will be key to saving our soils. Indeed, research[8] has shown that agroforestry helps enrich soil organic carbon better than monocropping systems; improves soil nutrient availability and fertility; and enhances soil microbial dynamics – all of which would drastically improve soil health.


Agroforestry also offers a wider range of ecosystem services – from restoring biodiversity and water quality, to promoting landscape amenity value and animal welfare, alongside climate mitigation. In addition, increased adoption of agroforestry has the potential to enhance the performance and resilience of UK food production.  


Despite these numerous benefits, only 3% of the UK’s farmland currently practices agroforestry. We would therefore like to see an ambitious target for increasing agroforestry on farms, alongside increased support for farmers to take up these practices.  



-          A 10% increase in investment towards farmer-led research and innovation


In order to bring at least 40% of England’s agricultural soil into sustainable management by 2028, and increase this to 60% by 2030[9], a widescale transition to nature-friendly and agroecological farming – shifting away from the overdependence on chemical inputs, and towards practices which work in harmony with nature. However, the efficiency of that transition will largely depend on the effectiveness of farm advice and support.

A growing body of research has highlighted the limitations of traditional advisory services, particularly when derived from academic research and government institutions[10]. The standardised solutions they present are often unsuited to the specific context, conditions, and needs of each farm[11]. The issue of trust also arises as a major barrier to the implementation of farming advice[12]

Meanwhile, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and farmer-led research models are increasingly recognised as powerful tools for agricultural innovation. They have been found to inspire farmers to try new practices, within a supportive and inclusive network[13]. The Soil Association strongly believes that supporting and expanding these research models will be key to creating and enacting the transformative change we need to see across agricultural soils – and wider ecosystems - which is why we helped launch the Innovative Farmers network back in 2012.

The programme brings together organic and non-organic farmers with researchers and provides funding and support to test new ideas in practical ‘field labs’. It provides a model that could be expanded more widely. The UK currently spends around £450 million a year on agricultural research and innovation, but as little as 1% goes to practical projects led by farmers. Putting just 10% of this budget towards these projects could see upwards of 1,000 projects a year led by groups of farmers, which would help accelerate the shift in farm practices we need to see in order to restore UK soils.

Alongside these targets, the Soil Association supports the Sustainable Soils Alliance’s call for the following set policy asks:







June 2023

[1]  https://www.mdpi.com/2073-445X/9/2/34  

[2]  The state of the environment soil (publishing.service.gov.uk) 

[3]  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-38207-w

[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23071312/

[5] https://orgprints.org/id/eprint/31483/

[6] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180442

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24968103/

[8] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10457-018-0223-9


[10] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00267-021-01546-y

[11] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X21003097

[12] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00267-021-01546-y

[13] https://farmforscotlandsfuture.scot/2023/05/22/sharing-knowledge-sharing-meals-a-peer-to-peer-learning-approach-to-agroecology/