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Written evidence submitted by Rothamsted Research (SH0104)


Visit date: 9 February


Between 10:30 – 3pm the EFRA Committee visited Rothamsted Research. Two roundtables with academics took place. Below are notes of some of the key themes of discussion from the event, along with additional comments from Rothamsted academics.


Monitoring and data

It was pointed out that measuring and determining “soil health” is a complex area for several reasons:


One participant suggested that soil scientists risk over-complicating data collection and soil health assessments. There are some things – such as the presence of SOC – that are nearly always a good thing. To some extent, with some caveats, “more is better” – it improves soil physical properties and, as microbes release nutrients from soil organic matter, less fertilizer is required for crops. However, very high levels of SOC can lead to losses of nitrate and phosphate, causing water pollution. SOC is not a pollutant or an element that needs to be maintained below a specific level.


ELM schemes in particular the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) require land managers to assess soils and take measurements for monitoring soil health. However, there are few requirements about how this data will be used. There was agreement among participants and Members with the idea that this information needs to be fed into a national surveillance system to help monitor soil health nationally. Because not all farmers will be expected to join an ELM scheme, this would not be a full picture. However, it was noted that if farmer data could be made open to the scientific community this could be an enormously powerful data set to detect impacts of management of soil health including environmental context. Other countries such as France have better monitoring programmes which may warrant further investigation by the Committee. Many companies are now offering a soil surveying service to quantify SOC and other metrics of soil health (in part to access natural capital markets) but these data are often not publicly available and lack associated information on land use and field management.


The Committee heard about how new technologies could transform how we collect data on soils. By combining drone technology, satellite data and soil sampling, it may be possible to build a broader picture and be more strategic when sampling. The Committee was also shown how it may be possible, in the future, for farms to use sensors in the ground to measure soil attributes in real time aspects such as moisture levels and emissions.


Advice for farmers

Due to the complicated nature of interventions to improve soil health, there was a conversation around where farmers get their advice, and how easy it is to know which farming techniques are backed by scientific evidence.


It was highlighted that most farmers rely on land managers and agronomists for advice. However, the former are often ill-equipped to provide advice on regenerative farming techniques. The latter include a range of types; some are 100% independent but some have connections with particular companies supplying specific products, so are likely to recommend products provided by these businesses. They also may specialise in the types of farming predominant in an area, and be focused solely in short-term agronomic outcomes, rather than long-term soil improvement. However, it was also highlighted that there is quality control of agronomic advisors through organisations such as the AICC (Association of Independent Crop Consultants).


Farmers currently lack clear advice on the appropriate avenue for integrating investment in soil health into farm revenue streams. Options include including land parcels in SFI, selling future carbon capture to natural capital markets (via intermediaries) or including it as in-setting to achieve net-zero for the farm. There is ongoing confusion about opportunities for blended finance from the same land parcel.


Land use

Questions were asked about how spatial planning for soils could be improved to ensure that different soils were used for appropriate purposes. It was highlighted that agricultural land classification does already exist and the government is planning to publish a land use framework. These documents will help decision-makers make better decisions about how their lands should be used, but this classification is based upon crop potential rather than soil organic carbon sequestration potential, or other ecosystem functions such as erosion or flood control, and so fails to address all aspects related to soil health. The science providing the underpinning evidence on heterogeneity in landscape properties that can inform targeting of option is now mature and available to support policy.


The government still appears to want these decisions to be made primarily at the estate-level which may not consider regional strategic or environmental needs – for instance, the issue of flood mitigation was mentioned that can only be addressed at a catchment scale. This potential for coordinated action by farmer clusters is currently being demonstrated in the Landscape Recovery Pilot Projects.


Alternative systems were pointed to, such as the Dutch model of spatial planning. One participant highlighted that the Landscape Recovery ELM scheme could better help regional environmental aims and help clusters of estates work together to put land to better use.


Problems with changing land use were acknowledged – for instance, one Member highlighted that land managers, choosing to plant trees for example instead of planting crops, may then force tenant farmers off their land. Other participants highlighted that large multinational businesses may similarly be encouraged to buy up agricultural land to capture the value being created by new ELM schemes. This could be a shame because:


Encouraging changes to land management practices

While emerging soil carbon marketplaces can be a useful source of income for farmers, one participant made the argument that farmers need to be made aware that better soil health management in general – even without additional private sector financing – makes good economic sense when growing food. Financial gains (through either greater yields, or a reduced reliance on expensive inputs like fertiliser) often only emerge in the long term. This is risky for farmers as business owners. This short-term risk needs addressing. Furthermore, there may be no clear financial gains for the farmer in the short- or medium-term but the improved practice would be beneficial for longer-term sustainability of food production or for other ecosystem functions.


Potential ways in which the UK Government could help encourage a shift to sustainable practices included:




There was a discussion about how Rothamsted Research and the other research institutions received funding for their work. In general, there was a feeling of uncertainty about how future funding would be structured given the need for longer-term strategic investment in research to support soil health. There was also discussion about how the ongoing political dispute over UK access to Horizon Europe funding was discouraging collaboration with European research centers. More integration between UK-level Government Departments and the devolved administrations would be useful.




June 2023



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