Next year is the International Year of Soils. So where do we stand on going forward?


The Environment Agency’s ‘State of Soils in England & Wales’ is now 10 years old. Since then we’ve seen a Soil Action Plan in the mid noughties, where Soil Organic Matter (SOM) was considered a headline indicator of soil health. Where has that disappeared to?  The last sign of any policy was Labour’s 2009 Safeguarding our soils.

As a minimum, Soil Protection Reviews are required of farmers seeking cross compliance subsidies, but they don’t involve much – basically don’t burn off crops (unless it’s heather for grouse!).

The EU’s  Seventh Environment Action Programme recognises that soil degradation is a serious challenge and its aim is ‘that by 2020 land is managed sustainably in the Union…and commits the EU and its Member States to increasing efforts to reduce soil erosion and increase soil organic matter.’

However, recently  the NFU and the current government  managed to block Europe’s latest attempt to protect our soils –  the EU Soils Directive, although Labour’s Environment Secretary wasn’t too happy with it either. I didn’t hear UKIP cheering that one out.


Some say there is a crisis for UK soils, with bigger, heavier machines  compacting soil resulting in less drainage,), erosion of arable land and lack of soil scientists.

 The Environmental Audit Committee on Sustainable Food recently  said: “We do not currently have the basic science base to deliver more sustainable food production practices….the Government must explicitly recognise the need for more research into…soil sciences”. And the  Government Response? “Defra contributed to a report by the Royal Agricultural Society of England which found that current numbers of soil and water specialists are considered to be adequate but these may well decline due to a number of factors”.

What they forgot to add, from that same RASE report  was this: “Only a concerted effort now to promote the importance of soil and water management education and establish clear and rewarding career paths will ensure that the human resources are in place to meet future challenges.”

These challenges are already upon us. Recently soil scientists R.C. Palmer and R.C. Smith found that ‘Field investigations between 2002 and 2011 identified soil structural degradation to be widespread in SW England with 38% of the 3243 surveyed sites having sufficiently degraded soil structure to produce observable features of enhanced surface-water runoff within the landscape. Soil under arable crops often had high or severe levels of structural degradation. Late-harvested crops such as maize had the most damaged soil where 75% of sites were found to have degraded structure generating enhanced surface-water runoff.’

Carbon content

The Strutt Report 1970 in UK concluded: “Some soils are now suffering from dangerously low organic matter levels and could not be expected to sustain the farming systems which have been imposed upon them.” We want the carbon in the soil rather than air to help deal with global warming as well as increased biomass and biodiversity.

When a few hundred years ago in Britain we chopped down forest to create pasture, to, soil carbon was depleted by about a half, and then a further half when we ploughed it up to become arable.

It’s been estimated that 123 tonnes of carbon is stored per hectare in forests, 62 tonnes in pasture and 44t (or less) in arable. . These figures suggest that the best thing we could do for our soils and for global warming would be to re-forest our moors & Mountain grasslands. But it’s unlikely that big landowners will go for that.

The worst thing we can do is keep ploughing and removing weeds – each one a small carbon capture and storage unit. Leave a weed and it will die naturally, bringing more carbon into the soil.

I wonder if there’s any research to determine how much lower in carbon fields that have been ploughed and dosed with herbicide are compared to ploughing only? I doubt if Monsanto have done the work – given the potentially significant impact on global warming of a 100 million hectares of land exposed to weed killers. Forget glyphosate toxicity, look what it does on the tin – kills weeds! There are laws to control ploughing (2006 regulations) but none controlling herbicides.

Soil carbon loss

Since 1980 according to another recent paper by Bellamy, UK soils have lost 12-15% carbon of their total carbon. . This is about four Million tonnes/yr lost in Greenhouse Gas Emissions. When you consider that 0.1 % of soil carbon loss  equates to 100m extra cars in terms of carbon emissions, you can see this  its significance.

However, the Countryside Survey of Great Britain CEH, using a different methodology, contradicted these carbon losses, claiming that there has been no change in last 30 years. DEFRA funded an independent survey Observer March 2010. The Supporting Evidence Paper for the Soil Strategy Paper (pdf) says “there is significant uncertainty surrounding the Bellamy et al findings, in particular on the causes”, quoting the work of Smith et al who consider that only 10-20% of the loss could be put down to global warming. The Strategy paper considered that there wasn’t much room to increase carbon sequestration in the soil. And the independent survey decided that they couldn’t work out why Bellamy and CEH were so different!  

If you look at those last findings, you could convince yourself that we can sit back and do nothing about our soils. But I just can’t help thinking with all that ‘big data’ around, we’re missing a huge opportunity to try and assess how much carbon we have in the soil.

And let’s remember that ‘soil health’ is more than just carbon – good health of the soil means: good structure of physical, chemical and biological components; holds nutrients; suppresses disease, and retains water.

Subsidise soil

Farming is one of the few industries that have the potential to sequester vast amounts of carbon (Farm Carbon cutting Toolkit). Why isn’t this at the forefront of ways to reduce our global warming impacts? 

When Richard Branson offered £25m to come up with a way to capture global warming gases, I was shouting ‘the soil can do it, it is virtually everywhere!’ Yet my fear is that because the Soil Strategy paper didn’t look too far or too hard, and because of the disagreement over Bellamy’s paper, nobody is going to move on it. 

Why aren’t the EU subsidies going in to soil sequestration, as that too helps the health of the soil? It’s my belief that our subsidies should be geared to reforestation on moors and mountain grasslands and growing more fruit trees on pasture land in West. I want to see more pasture in the East of the UK too, which could also bring in revenue and reward to rural communities.

It’s blatantly obvious to me that protecting and nurturing our soil – both in the UK and around the world – is critical for the future of the planet. And it’s equally clear that lack of knowledge of the current state of play and underinvestment in soil science will prevent us from achieving that. First we gather information, then we share knowledge, and finally we act together to create policies that support the very stuff we rely on for our livelihoods and, ultimately, our lives.

Download the referenced version of Charlie’s article