The SSA wraps up 2019
As 2019 draws to a close, and with it the first year of our Esmée Fairbairn funding, we thought we’d take this opportunity to reflect on the achievements and other developments of the past twelve months, and to provide an update on our strategy for 2020.

I’m sure we’re not alone in feeling that a renewed sense of clarity and purpose is needed after the recent extended period of disruption and uncertainty, and with that in mind will be launching headlong into the new year with fresh focus on a number of projects already underway, as well as some new initiatives which we hope will be of interest to our community.
But first – a look back at the last quarter:
Soil & the 2019 election

We continue to push for soil health to be recognised by government as a critical pillar of environment and agriculture legislation. In the run up to December’s election we wrote to the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour and Green Parties asking them to include a concrete commitment to sustainably managed soils by 2030 in their manifestos, alongside suggestions of the strategic steps needed to achieve this target; and joined the campaign in support of a Climate & Nature leaders debate. We then went on to put together a pre-election brief outlining soil’s place in the party manifestos, and our Director, Matthew, produced this thought piece drawing attention to the progress that the environment – and to a lesser extent soil policy – had made since 2017, and emphasising that the successful party must not lose sight of the these achievements.

Soil Security Programme Outcomes event

Members of the SSA team attended the Soil Security Programme (SSP) outcomes event at the Royal Society on World Soils Day (5th December), where researchers presented outputs from the 5 year NERC-funded project intended to enhance understanding of how soils respond, adapt to and recover from climate change and land use. SSA Science Panel Chair, Prof Chris Collins, introduced the event in his formal capacity as Coordinator of the SSP, whilst various other SSA Advisors presented at the event including Prof Dieter Helm (Natural Capital Committee) and Vicki Hird (Sustain).
Soils Field Guidance

Back in May, four SSA Advisors – Chris Collins, Elizabeth Stockdale (NIAB), Stephen Briggs (Innovation for Agriculture) and Richard Smith (Environment Agency) – were involved in the joint National Trust / SSP project to develop a standardised, manageable and meaningful system of on-farm soil health monitoring metrics, to be recommended to Defra for inclusion in development of the new Environmental Land Management scheme. Their workshop outcomes and recommendations to Defra have now been published and are available here.

We are now involved in progressing the detail of the recommendations, beginning with a series of practical workshops in collaboration with Yeo Valley and the Environment Agency. The first of these addressed how metrics for measuring soil health can be effectively applied on-farm, and whether there is a need for standardised national guidance in the context of differing soils types and landscapes. Our report from the event, held in November, is here.

We are in the process of forming a Guidance Steering Group, due to meet in early 2020 to further progress this work.

Soil Carbon

One primary takeaway from 2019 has been the importance of focusing efforts on soil carbon – the golden thread between farmers, business, investors and the Treasury, and the best instrument for breaking soil out of its ‘green’ silo. We have produced a Carbon Sequestration web resource, with details of keystone events and initiatives that have looked to debate and develop policy on the subject, that we will continue to update in the coming year.

We were also part of a coalition of 25+ organisations coordinated by the RSPB that wrote to Defra to urge the immediate banning of England’s upland peat bogs, a vital potential carbon sink rendered significant carbon emitter by current mismanagement.

Our first 2020 priority project will be dedicated to Soil Carbon, with a view to bridging the subject’s science/policy/business/investor gap and with key planned events including:
  • The development and announcement of a scientific consensus statement outlining the possibilities and limitations of soil carbon sequestration in UK soils
  • A workshop-style event involving the business, technology and even financial communities with an interest in soil carbon
Soil and the Supply Chain

At our second (September) meeting of growers and retailers as part of our Soil in the Supply Chain project, we identified an interest in better understanding the range of soil health education initiatives undertaken across the country. We plan to act on this in 2020 with a Soil Knowledge Economy mapping exercise of existing UK initiatives – and an extensive, searchable database for end-users.

Soil monitoring

Finally, we have spent the second half of 2019 analysing the results of our Freedom of Information Request regarding comparative government spend on monitoring of soils, water and air. We are preparing to release the analysis and will subsequently establish a plan to develop fit-for-purpose soil monitoring as part of our 2020 work on a standalone, overarching soils strategy comparable to the Clean Air Strategy and Biodiversity 2020.
And in other news from the last three months…
Community and Partnerships:

Director Neville Fay presented a keynote at SoilsCon 2019 on the mutually-supportive relationship between trees and soils, and threats posed by the UK’s loss of 2.9 million tonnes of topsoil/year; and spoke at the London Tree Officers Association Soil Seminar highlighting the need for policy change to restore degraded UK soils to health.

We held a productive meeting with Feedback and supported the recent launch of their report Too Much of a Bad Thing revealing the impact of sugar beet growth on land degradation, with the crop contributing 490,000 tonnes of the UK’s yearly soil erosion yet still enjoying government subsidies whilst the average citizen consumes twice the recommended sugar intake, leading to widespread health problems and costs for the NHS (as well as the land).

We’re collaborating with the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol) this year on several soil-related projects. Our public engagement brief will be used for the Creative Communications Campaigns module of both Undergraduate and Sustainability in Practice Masters courses; and two of these Masters students are undertaking their Work-based Learning placements with us, focusing research projects on microplastics in soils and soil health in the supply chain.

SSA Director Ellen visited a primary school in Bristol to deliver a workshop as part of World Soils Day awareness-raising. Children from Years 4 and 5 enjoyed an introduction to underground biodiversity, the main threats to soil health and actions they can take to support soils. The feedback from children and teachers alike was very positive, and we are currently constructing an open-access resource webpage with downloadable presentation, films and activity worksheet suitable for primary school ages.

We will be convening our Strategic Advisory Board at the beginning of next year for its second annual meeting, and look forward to feeding back on the progress made on last year’s action points and garnering guidance on our 2020 workplan.

Further to our first fundraising event at Yeo Valley HQ in September which raised over £20,000, and our first corporate partnership with the Real Olive Company, we are also celebrating a successful application to the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation with a grant of £30,000 given over the next two years. We also have several applications pending with news on these expected in the New Year.
And a quick round up of 2019…
In spite of delays to the Environment and Agriculture bills and the proposed peat taskforce, the replacement of several ministers including SOS for Defra, and confusion around post-Brexit land management reform, we are pleased with the progress we have been able to make this year towards our goal of policy for sustainable soils by 2030, including:
Increased collaboration with the Environment Agency, the co-hosting of their State of the Environment: Soil report launch and delivery of on-farm workshops

An invitation from Defra to convene a Soil in the 25 Year Environment Plan (25 YEP) technical stakeholder workshop and submit a report to them, subsequently included in their 25 YEP progress report  

Production of a rationale for soil health as headline indicator in the 25 YEP, included as evidence in Defra’s first review of the framework, so leading to more recognition of soil’s importance within policy

Letters of support from Michael Gove (then-SOS for Defra) and Greg Clark
(then-SOS for BEIS)  

Support across both houses in calling for soil to be recognised as a public good in the new Agriculture Bill  

A push for a place for soil in the new post-Brexit Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) including submission of a parliamentary question and regular meeting programme with the ELMs team, a resume of ELM progress and practical partnership projects with Yeo Valley and NIAB

Engaging pan-governmental interest in, and support for, soil health with our Economics of Soil event in March, featuring speeches from then-Chief Secretary to the Treasury and then-SOS for Business, Energy & Industrial strategy – a watershed moment as the first time soil had been addressed by non-Defra Ministers  

Responding on soils’ behalf to government consultations on Farm Tenancy Reform, Flood & Coastal Erosion, the Environment Bill, Green Brexit, Food, Net Zero, Peatlands, Economics of Biodiversity and Welsh Farming.
Read all our responses here.
In the last year we have collaborated with Natural England, the    Environment Agency, Treework Environmental Practice, NIAB, Yeo Valley, the Eden Project, BBIA, the RSA’s FFCC, the Royal Parks, the Guardian on this video and many more organisations to raise awareness of the significance of soil health to a wide spectrum of areas and concerns.

We have also taken on our first intern, a Soil Biology Masters student from Wageningen University, who will be reflecting on her time with us at the end of her placement in February.
You can catch up with our news from the year in more detail here and look out for our Week in Soil news roundup every Friday morning, on twitter and our website. Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter here.
All of us at the SSA would like to wish you an enjoyable festive break, and to thank you for your continued support. We look forward to working with you throughout 2020 and beyond.

Elly, Matthew, Nev and Ursula
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