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News & Updates: Winter 2020

As 2020 draws to an end, we thought we would take the opportunity to take you through an overview of our main activities, achievements and other developments of this past year. We are pleased to say that despite the pandemic, our flexible approach to both working and networking meant we were well equipped for the ‘new reality’ and have managed to keep projects and lobbying work up to pace.

Whilst funding sources were impacted by Covid 19 priorities, this was offset by an emergency grant generously offered by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. We’d like to thank you all for your continuing support throughout the year.

A ROUND-UP OF 2020

At the start of the year, we celebrated the inclusion of soil in the Agriculture bill (since November 2020, Agriculture Act). This is a significant endorsement of our community's lobbying work and a potential game-changer for the soil-health cause - a commitment to government investment in soil health that is (potentially) almost unique around the world.
  Making sure the government sticks to its promise will be a priority in the years ahead.

 

In March, our freedom of information request revealed that England’s spending on soil monitoring was only 0.4% of that spent on air and water. This was covered by the BBC and was the most-read environment story on their website that week.


 

We carried out an informal audit of the publicly available (on-line) soil management guidance developed over the last twenty years to help farmers measure, monitor, manage and improve their soils. We have published a list of these resources and carried out an analysis of these different mechanisms – to explain how soil health has gradually been relegated as a political priority.

  
 With our science panel, we have been working to address the issues faced when trying to apply and interpret Soil Quality Indicators (SQIs) with environmental outcomes in mind. WWF has helped us get this project off the ground and we have developed it further by hosting a workshop with stakeholders in October (updates below).


We submitted a formal response to DEFRA’s Environmental Land Management policy discussion document, highlighting soil’s unique ability to deliver the public goods stated in the Agricultural bill. This was based on extensive consultation with our Science Panel, Strategic Advisory Board and others, so many thanks to all those who contributed to the process (see further updates below).

 

We have joined a consortium of UK soil scientists and international carbon protocol experts looking to investigate and potentially establish a UK Farm and Soil Carbon Code. We are in the process of approaching both public and private sector sources for funding for the project which we hope will make a valuable and much needed evidence-led contribution to the soil carbon debate.

 

The Sustainable Soils Alliance has created a working group entitled the Sustainable Urban Soils Health Initiative (SUSHI), made up of soil scientists, arboriculturists, landscape architects and local government officers who work in the construction, land development and land management sector. SUSHI aims to raise awareness around the damaging effects the development sector has on soil functions and to develop and promote an up-to-date code of practice for the sustainable use of soils on construction sites.

The SSA is in collaboration with the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol) on several soil-related projects. Two Masters students undertook their work-based learning placements with us, focusing on soil health in the supply chain and soil metric initiatives. We look forward to working on future research projects with them.

 

We also developed an open-access learning resource for children of primary school age, which was widely used during the months of lockdown.

 

In September, we welcomed Anicée Defrance onto the team for a 12-month public affairs and public relations internship.

 

Finally, despite Covid, our engagement programme has remained busy throughout the year, managing to virtually meet and collaborate with various organisations. These have included the National Trust, WWF, Earthwatch, Sustain, Sustainable Food Trust, FFCC, the Soil Association (campaigners), the DEFRA soils team, Natural England and the Environment Agency (public sector) and the NFU, Groundswell and CLA (farming organisations). This summer we also formed part of a grouping of food and farming sector NGOs looking to address diversity and inclusivity in the sector.

THIS QUARTER'S NEWS
1. uksoils

We're excited to announce the launch of www.uksoils.org, an ambitious new initiative we have been collaborating on with the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Earthwatch and the University of Sheffield these past months. It launched on the 4th December 2020 in support of World Soil Day. www.uksoils.org is an online soil hub with the most engaging and innovative public-facing information and education resources relating to soil health from around the world and across the web. It aims to kickstart a nationwide public appreciation and understanding of the economic, societal and ecological importance of soil health.

The World Soil Day launch was targeted at the soils community, to allow expert individuals and organisations to propose ideas and suggestions for content that should be included on the site. The founding group will continually seek new partners to expand the initiative’s reach and engagement and we are delighted to have been joined most recently by the British Soil Science Society and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Do please get in touch if you have any comment on the site – or would like to suggest new material.

Explore uksoils

2. Soil Quality Indicators (SQIs) and Logical Sieve Workshop

The SSA held a virtual workshop in October to present the work we have been doing with our science panel on a shortlist of SQIs for presentation to the DEFRA soils team. The workshop consolidated the work already available on defining the critical SQIs and their application for understanding the delivery of public goods and highlighted the relevance of this work to the natural capital agenda that has developed over the past decade.

 

We will continue this work in 2021, looking in particular to examine the standard operating procedures used by farmers to understand their soils – those that are most user-friendly, practical and affordable. We will also look into the potential for combining laboratory analyses of soil to provide more efficient, more 3-dimensional results.

2. Soil in ELM Workshop

Late November, the SSA hosted a virtual workshop bringing together a range of organisations (science, farming, policy-making, NGO) to discuss how the government’s proposed Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme might best be designed to deliver healthier soil. It reflected that, while the Agriculture Bill has been adopted and has committed to pay farmers through ELM to improve or protect their soils – a critical balance of regulation, education and incentivisation is yet to be achieved and is important to reach before the scheme is rolled out in 2024.

Several interesting conclusions emerged from the workshop – the need to demonstrate to farmers the importance of soil before employing regulations or incentivisation, the importance of soil measurement and monitoring for unlocking soil understanding, the need for a regional approach to reflect different weather conditions across the country and finally the widespread gaps in soil knowledge among farmers, advisors and even within academia. A workshop summary is available, and in the New Year, we will publish a summary with clear policy asks.

Our Soil in ELM Workshop Report

We also analysed the list of publicly available ELM tests and trials and identified how soil features within them. 

List Tests and Trials featuring soils
POLICY

In October we responded to the government’s Planning for the Future White Paper 2020 that proposes reforms of the planning system to streamline and modernise the planning process. We highlighted the need for planning policy to address soil recovery and sustainable use.

 

Read our submission

We have also been advising the DEFRA soils team on the potential implementation and development of soil targets, of which more will be revealed in the new year. We also look forward to meeting with Environment Ministers Rebecca Pow and Victoria Prentice to update them on both our work and our policy in January.

ENGAGEMENT

We have been approached by several universities to support their proposed research projects for the Future of UK Treescapes programme, led by UK Research and Innovation - Natural Environment Research Council. This interdisciplinary programme seeks to significantly improve the environmental, socio-economic and cultural understanding of the functions and services provided by UK treescapes to inform decision-making on the expansion of future ones. We have decided to support the proposals made by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the University of Plymouth, both of which are engaging and impactful.

FUNDING

We’d like to thank all the organisations that have funded us throughout 2020. We were successful in securing our core funding for the next two years from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation which we are deeply thankful for. We’d also like to thank the Network for Social Change who offered us a second grant to cover our core costs and we are very grateful for a grant to pursue our work on soil carbon from SEM Trust. Support from the private sector has also been gratefully received from The Real Olive Company and the Co-operative, and we’d like to thank WWF for supporting our work on Soils Guidance. We have also worked closely with Yeo Valley, ever since our inception as an organisation. They have played a critical role in facilitating our work, hosting events on cutting-edge soil issues and helped us bring the plight of soil to government attention. Yeo Valley have taken the brave and inspiring step of putting soil health at the very heart of their operations.

The SSA team would like to wish you all a happy holiday season, and the very best for this coming year. We thank you and all of our broader community of soil enthusiasts for the advice, support and guidance that have made our recent achievements possible. We look forward to working with you in 2021.

 

The SSA Team: Ellen, Matt, Anicée, Nev, Kevin and Robert.

To keep up to date with soil news from around the UK and further afield check our events calendar, follow us on twitter @soilsalliance and watch out for our Week in Soil update, published every Friday morning. Have some news or a soil-related event to share with our community? Email info@sustainablesoils.org
We'd like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have donated to the SSA. We're extremely grateful for all contributions, large & small.
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We currently receive all of our funding from grant-making foundations and individual donors and only accept support that does not compromise our independence and therefore our ability to engage with the widest possible community of individuals and stakeholders.
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