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.
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.