Government’s environment plan fails to protect soil

Government’s environment plan fails to protect soil

The government has failed to recognise the vital role for soil in sustainable farming and put it at the heart of its new Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP). It has also broken a commitment made in the House of Lords to produce a Soil Health Action Plan for England.

The EIP updates the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (25 YEP), published in 2018, which set out a long-term vision for the environment, setting the goal of improving nature and halting the decline in biodiversity.

This plan was recently slammed in a report by the Office for Environmental Protection, which indicated that the government was partially or significantly off track for its environment targets. Yet disappointingly, the goals for soil have been watered down since the 25 YEP. Where the previous aim was to manage all soils sustainably by 2030, the aim now is to achieve that for just over half (60%) of soils.

Soil health is paramount to the future of farming and to mitigating climate change. Soil stores more carbon than the atmosphere and all the world’s plants and forests combined, and 95% of food production relies on it.

Its omission from a major government environment plan is alarming.

The EIP includes a commitment to a soil health indicator and a baseline for soil health but falls short of meaningful targets to get us to an ambitious overarching vision. And the commitment to a Soil Health Action Plan appears to have been abandoned. The Soil Association is calling for government to implement a statutory soil health target that would make it a legal requirement for all farmers and landowners to protect and restore their soils.

Soil Association Head of Farming Policy Gareth Morgan said: “It is alarming that despite repeated promises, the government is failing to protect farming’s most precious resource – soils.

The Environmental Improvement Plan only goes some way to address the highly critical report from the Office for Environmental Protection. With 70% of English land under farmland and wildlife populations in freefall, we need all farming to be nature-friendly like agroecology and organic, not less than 15% of it.

We need legally binding, ambitious environmental targets backed up by detailed policies that spark a swift transformation to make our food and farming system to be resilient in the face of climate change. Defra’s bite must be stronger than its bark.”

What’s in the plan?

  • A target of 65 to 80% of landowners and farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming on at least 10-15% of their land by 2030. This is encouraging, but the government hasn’t been clear on how this will be achieved or how they are defining “nature-friendly”. The current Sustainable Farming Incentives don’t go far enough to deliver truly nature-friendly, agroecological farming.
  • The Soil Association welcomes the aim to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution from agriculture into the water environment – albeit an unambitious target reduction of 40% by 2038. But farmers need support to move to systems that radically reduce inputs in the first place, like organic farms where use of artificial fertilisers is banned.
  • A commitment to publish the long-overdue UK National Action Plan for Sustainable Use of Pesticides in 2023. This is a welcome update to this project. The pesticides plan will be vitally important if the government aims to stick to the commitments made at the COP15 biodiversity summit to reduce the harmful impacts of pesticide by half by 2030. But this commitment was alarmingly absent from the EIP, and the recent emergency authorisation of bee-harming neonicotinoids for the third year running flies in the face of these goals.
  • The intention to increase tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 16.5% of total land area in England by 2050, and a target to increase this by 0.26% by 31 January 2028. This is a weak target, both in the low percentage of trees planted and the vague commitment to planting times. Under this plan trees could be planted later in the scheme, giving them insufficient time to mature and capture enough carbon to make a difference to net zero goals. And we think many of these trees could go into farmland, rather than taking farmland out of production.