Efra Committee recommends further regulation to improve UK soil health

Marking World Soils Day 2023, the Efra (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Committee has published its report into soil health, culminating its soil health inquiry held at the start of the year. The report suggests the need for statutory targets on soil health, which would give soil health the same legal importance as water and air quality.

It also calls for actions that are underpinned by data and soil health indicators, much of which is currently not possible due to a lack of data on soil health in the UK.

To combat these challenges, the report suggests that clear and measurable targets for improving soil health across England are required, such as a regulatory framework in place by 2030.

Following giving evidence to the inquiry in the summer of 2023, NFU Environment Forum chair Richard Bramley has welcomed the recommendations outlined in the report, stressing the need for healthy soil to underpin the nation’s farming systems.

ELMs are considered key driver in securing UK soil health
The report identifies ELMs (Environmental Land Management schemes) as the main vehicle through which the government can work to improve soil health management across the agricultural sector.

The committee recommends that the ELMs scheme budget be increased to reflect the environmental benefits it offers and to allow for an uplift in payment rates to drive take-up. It also suggests that the government should aim for all agricultural land to be in an ELM scheme by 2040, underpinned by a clear definition of sustainable soil management.

The report also notes that ELMs cannot be the sole means of addressing wider supply chain issues that factor towards unsustainable farming, including lack of profitability, unsustainable retailer and consumer demands, and a need to boost the supply of a diverse range of organic inputs.

Richard said: “There is much in the Efra Committee report that we agree with. This includes funding the widespread, standardized testing of soil through the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme and working with the industry on an agreed set of metrics for soil health with widely accepted definitions of sustainable soil management by the end of 2024.

“The NFU also welcomes the recommendation within the report urging the government to ensure that sustainable farming is profitable by addressing supply chain demands and guaranteeing that ELMs pay attractive rates for a wide range of ambitious soil-improvement measures such as the use of innovative precision farming.”

Regulatory Frameworks
The committee also identified scope for a future regulatory framework for soils, calling for soil health to be put on the same footing as water and air quality within government policy, with aligning statutory targets.

Its report recommends that the government take steps to improve the guidance, skills development, and education around soils so that land managers and their advisors have the tools they need to properly factor soil health into their decision-making. The committee suggests using farmer-led research and knowledge exchange to increase farmers’ comprehension of soils.

Richard said: “As highlighted in our own Foundation of Food report, by working together to better preserve and enhance this most valuable national resource, we can make significant progress towards our goal of net zero by 2040 while delivering for the environment and continuing to produce sustainable climate-friendly food.”