News & Updates: Spring 2020

The coming quarter promises to be a highly disruptive one with extensive workplace restrictions, public events cancelled and critical policy debate delayed. As a small, nimble organisation we hope we are well-placed to weather this particular storm and are confident we can maintain progress on our various projects in the months ahead, despite the upheaval.   

Once the Covid 19 crisis abates and things return to ‘new normal’ we know that the environmental crisis will still be with us, and we're keen to use this inevitable hiatus period to prepare for the next chapter of putting soil on the public and political agenda where it belongs.  

To do so, we will make use of the full suite of online tools available to us – replacing conventional networking and engagement with ‘virtual’ workshops, shared documents etc. – so please bear with us if we make an unusual request of you, our community’s knowledge and expertise. 

Our soil pack for children learning from home
Educating about the importance of soil health is a universal challenge that needs to start with the very young. With that in mind, we have developed an open-access learning resource for children of primary school age – available for free download from our website.
The pack was designed to engage Yr 3, 4 and 5 pupils with soils - from soil biology and functions to climate change, the causes of soil damage and keeping soil healthy. The related activities will help children to dig in and improve their understanding of different soil aspects, whilst also connecting with subjects including maths, science and the arts.
At a time when many of us are ‘stuck(!)’ at home with young minds to engage and entertain, it’s a great opportunity to explain to them all about a critical part of their world they might not learn about in class - especially now Spring is in the air, the days are getting longer and the soil is ripe for digging holes and sowing seeds!
Please do pass it on to anyone – young and old - who might benefit from using this over the coming period.
Freedom of Information request
In 2018 we submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to understand how public money spent on monitoring soil compares with that spent on other key environmental indicators (air and water). This week we published the results which were exclusively reported on by the BBC’s Environment Correspondent, Roger Harrabin.
Read the BBC article here
The FoI revealed a mere 0.4% of this total spend goes to soils – despite soil’s wider environmental significance not least as a determinant of the health of these other two environmental pillars.
The full story is on our website
We hope that this information will be a helpful tool for empowering our community to argue for soil to get the political and economic attention it needs and deserves. Please get in touch if you have any questions about it.
Soil Monitoring and Field Guidance
We continue to develop a project around national Soil Monitoring & Field Guidance for application across different soil types and land uses. Working with Prof Chris Collins (SSP), Prof Jane Rickson (Cranfield University), GWCT, the Environment Agency and the National Trust, we are scoping the current guidance landscape, understanding the demand and establishing where we can add most value. We're grateful to the WWF for supporting us in getting this project off the ground.
Urban soils
The SSA is exploring the development of an urban soils project, initially to focus on protecting soils impacted by construction and infrastructure development resulting in compaction, sealing and soil loss. The first steering group meeting in February determined to produce a draft position statement, review Defra’s code of practice for soils on construction sites and prepare model local planning authority guidance for sustainable soil management, together with examples of best and worst practice.
One of the latest contributions to our Soil Soap Box series focuses on the neglect of soils in the development sector, presenting four suggestions for better management of soils on construction sites on the path towards truly Sustainable Development.
Collaborators from James Hutton Institute and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) produced a piece for us on ‘the state and the art of soil carbon monitoring’. They present their views of the benefits of soil carbon for agriculture and climate mitigation, the need for a framework for monitoring in the context of potential payment schemes, and the complexity behind the measuring processes.

Agriculture Bill
We joined our community in celebrating the recognition for soils in the new Agriculture Bill, presented to parliament on 16 January. In particular we welcomed the formal recognition of soil as both a public and private good as a ‘step-change in awareness and appreciation of its significance’ in a statement in response to the Bill – whilst highlighting the fact that there is still a great deal of work to be done. 

We will continue to campaign for an ambitious strategy with clear milestones for delivery to meet the government’s target of sustainably managed soils by 2030. Co-director Matthew Orman discussed this in greater depth in a piece for the Farmers Guardian Brexit Hub, and our comments were included in the Guardian and ENDS report.

Environment Bill
In contrast, we were disappointed with the lack of reference to soils in the latest version of the Environment Bill, as presented on 30 January – despite the list of targets, measures and investment commitments for three other critical environmental indicators:  air, water and biodiversity. 

This inconsistency between the two Bills is the soil issue in a nutshell, and at the heart of the problem is the lack of a rudimentary, baseline understanding of the state of England’s soils – something our FOI request has looked to address. Indications from the debate in Parliament so far, and given the government majority, we don’t think that many amendments will be accepted to the Bill, however we will be writing to MPs and peers highlighting soil’s on-going neglect when it comes to strategic environmental priority-making.

On February 25, Defra published its Environmental Land Management (ELM) Policy discussion document outlining the government’s vision for the concept of ‘public money for public goods’ – its replacement for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

The deadline for feedback on the document had originally been set for May 5; however, due to Covid 19, this has now been suspended until a new timeframe can be established.

As promised by the Agriculture Bill, soil management featured among the examples of actions contributing to the delivery of environmental public goods that the scheme might pay for. This raises a number of practical questions about how these payments will be estimated and allocated as well as more philosophical ones regarding fairness and enforcement.  

We have begun scoping some of these issues for consideration at this or later stages of the process and these can be seen in our brief overview here. We will also submit a formal response to the document as soon as Defra open the consultation up again – and we are still inviting feedback from our members to inform this.

Strategic Advisory Board (SAB) meeting
We held our second annual SAB meeting in February, bringing together Board members representing the supply chain, environment sector, science and farming communities. The discussion centred on the future direction of the SSA’s behaviour change and awareness-raising work, tackling strategies around education, enforcement, guidance, incentivisation and youth engagement. The group also focused thinking on our planned development of a Soil Policy Framework, to be put out to Members for consultation at the end of this year.
University of the West of England (UWE)
Our collaboration with the UWE Creative Campaigns and Sustainability in Practice courses is coming to fruition. The Campaigns cohort presented their public engagement projects working to a soils brief set by the SSA, and with a focus on younger generations provided valuable insight as to the styles, modes and focus of communications to this audience – a new one for the SSA! Comms Coordinator Ursula also spent time with the Sustainability Masters students this term to introduce the soils brief and enjoyed a lively conversation with a group of very engaged students from a range of backgrounds and interests. We’re looking forward to observing their project presentations in May.
The two Masters students currently conducting work-based learning placements with us will present their research projects (virtually) on microplastics in soils and soil in the supply chain at the end of the academic year.
Meanwhile, Wageningen soil biology student Alice Hirons’ internship with us came to an end in January. She focused on our supply chain work and soil in education projects; you can read her reflection on the five-month placement on our website here.

We are delighted to have been invited by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to re-apply for a second three-year core funding grant in June.

The Network for Social Change approved a second grant to the SSA of £20,000 for core costs. We are exceptionally grateful to Network for this as it is unusual for them to award consecutive grants.

Support from the private sector has been gratefully received this quarter from the Real Olive Company and Co-operative Foods.

WWF are processing a grant dedicated to Stage 1 of our Soils Guidance project.

We continue to benefit from an upskilling grant from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s Grants Plus. We are in our third month of media training with Jon Flinn of DHA Communications, which has contributed to us being featured in both the Guardian and the BBC.

Our governance and business development under this grant is provided by Glyn Bottrell.

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 without fail. Have some news or a soil-related event to share with our community? Email
We wish all our members and their families well in these challenging times and thank you for your continued support.

The SSA team: Ellen, Matt, Nev and Ursula 
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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