Standing up for soil health in parliament

Standing up for soil in parliament

This week, our Chief Executive Helen Browning joined a panel of experts at the Palace of Westminster to discuss the future of British soils and emphasise the importance of protecting this precious resource to government.

Helen spoke on behalf of the Soil Association, and as an organic farmer, at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee’s oral evidence session. This was part of an ongoing inquiry on soil health that is looking at the government’s role in halting the degradation of soils across England.

Soils are essential for all life on earth

Healthy soils are fundamental to the resilience of our food and farming systems, as well as to tackling the climate and nature crises. According to the Environment Agency, UK soils store up to 10 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 80 years of our annual greenhouse gas emissions – with the potential to hold much more. This makes them an essential resource to tackle climate change. And almost all our food – a whopping 97% of it – relies on soil, making it essential for our survival, and all life on earth.

But as it stands, our soils are in crisis. Intensive farming practices associated with a lack of crop diversity, removal of trees, and chemical inputs have led to degradation and erosion, with millions of tonnes of soil lost each year. The EFRA inquiry aims to analyse the government’s role in reversing this trend and restoring soils across the country.

The focus of this session was on the impacts of pesticides and artificial fertilisers on soil health – areas which the Soil Association has been passionately campaigning against for decades. We know that the overuse of agrochemicals on farms has devastating impacts on soil life and biodiversity, which in turn reduces the soil’s natural fertility and nutrient recycling functions.

Meanwhile, nature-friendly, agroecological farming practices help build and restore the health of our soils. In organic farming, for example, standards are carefully designed to ensure that regenerating soil health is a key priority for farmers. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides are avoided, relying instead on building natural fertility, nutrient recycling and plant health to create healthy, living soils.  This results in an average of 50% more wildlife on organic farms.

Government must back nature-friendly farming to save soil

The EFRA Committee was keen to hear from the panel about why farmers have become so reliant on chemical inputs, and how they might be helped to transition to more sustainable alternatives. Helen grasped this opportunity to highlight the benefits of organic farming, and to address main barriers which are preventing a widescale transition to organic and other agroecological practices, which are so central to restoring soil health. In short – farmers need much more support.

A key topic raised across the panel – which included representatives from ADAS, the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), and the Chartered Institute of Waste Management - was the urgent need for a standardised data collection system, to help monitor soil health across the country. This is crucial to ensure farmers understand the current state of their soils, how they compare to farms with similar soil types, and what they can do to improve it. The new Soil Association Exchange platform, which is offering farmers services to help them measure their impacts on climate and nature, will be able to help in this process.

There was also a general consensus that better support and unbiased advice should be available to farmers – rather than advice coming from agrochemical companies, as has historically been the case. Helen argued that farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange has a key role to play here – as we’ve learnt though our farm research network Innovative Farmers - and called for more funding to be directed towards farmer-led approaches.

Organic delivers solutions for the climate, nature and health emergencies

Throughout the session, Helen’s headline message was that shifting towards organic and similar agroecological farming practices will be key to restoring the health of our soils. It is also key in  providing a resilient and viable future for farmers in the long term – they cannot produce food without healthy soils, and are much more vulnerable to flooding and drought if their soils are degraded and eroding.

But this shouldn’t cost more for consumers. Helen said: ”I'll be delighted when organic food is sold at the same price as non-organic food. I've always felt that if nitrogen fertiliser was at the right price, given its impacts on the environment, organic is probably the cheapest way to produce our food.

“If we got our economic system right organic could be a very cost-effective way of doing things. We'd be less reliant on a market premium, and more reliant on valuing the biodiversity benefits, the carbon benefits, and the human health benefits that flow from organic farming systems.”

Watch the full soil inquiry session in parliament, and you can read more about the Soil Association’s views on sustainable soil management.

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