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HoC Environmental Audit Committee - Soil Health

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee have launched an inquiry into Soil Health and the best way to develop a strategy for tracking soil health.  Details of the inquiry can be found on the committee website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 20 January 2016

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences. Of our 12,000 Fellows, probably 30-40% work with soils, principally urban soils associated with construction and land remediation.

2. Soil health and geoscience intersect in many important ways. The UK has over 700 soil types and these are determined by variations in underlying geology among other variables such as climate, plant and animal ecology. The highly diverse nature of geology in the UK and its associated soil structures underpins and supports the large diversity of landscapes and biodiversity that are found across the country. Soil quality and health is an important consideration for a number of areas of applied geology. These include the quality of soil for foundations in construction which is important to geotechnical engineers, and linked to this, the assessment and remediation of polluted and contaminated soils, to enable them to be used for construction or agriculture. This is of particular importance in former mining areas such as parts of Wales, a country with a legacy of 1300 former metal mining sites which has led to polluted soils and rivers in the local area. A large number of our Fellows work in this remediation area. Additionally, geologists work to locate and source the essential mined materials that go into the fertilisers added to soils to maintain food and biomass production. Soils also form a vital first stage in the groundwater recharge process and are critical in flood management processes. Soils also have a key role in the Earth system that regulates atmospheric CO2, and has done so for a substantial part of geological time.

3. It is important for policymakers and other decision makers to recognise that the collective term ‘soil’ can be used to describe different things by different scientific communities. Soil - to an engineering geologist or a soil mechanic – can include much more material than what is meant by a soil scientist and can refer to non-fertile soils not able to support plant life. This can mean that what an engineering geologist describes as a soil function - such as holding up engineered structures - is incompatible with the biological function of soil - to support plants or fauna. In the text below we have used the term ‘soil’ in the sense that a pedologist or soil scientist would understand it, and not, as it is sometimes understood, as all material that is not a rock. Understanding of this nuance is vital to designing and implementing effective soil monitoring and protection policies.

How could soil health best be measured and monitored? How could the Government develop a strategy for tracking soil health?

4. Soil is a key part of the support system for life on Earth and its conservation is imperative to living sustainably and equitably. Soil is a finite and non-renewable resource and effective measuring and monitoring is key to understanding and preserving this important resource. Soil health underwrites many functions that are an integral part of society and environmental processes. Careful soil management is an essential element of sustainable agriculture and has important implications for climate regulation and the safeguarding of ecosystem services. Healthy soils have other important roles in maintaining a sustainable environment. They store carbon, produce food and timber, filter water, support wildlife and underpin urban and rural landscapes. However, there are signs within the EU and around the world that the condition of soils has been neglected, and without an effective regulatory framework this cannot be properly addressed.

5. The vast array of soil compositions seen in the natural environment results from a complex set of interactions which influence their properties and structure. These in turn support a wide variety of ecosystem services. The specific supporting functions of soil are governed by the suite of chemical, biological and physical properties of the soil. Knowledge and understanding of the state of these properties, their interaction and the effect of change is essential to living sustainably. Good soil governance requires that this complexity is understood and built into any strategy.

6. Soil health can be measured in a number of ways. It can be measured in terms of the quantity and type of organic matter it contains, levels of biodiversity (plant, invertebrate and higher animals) and the range of ecosystem services it supports. A useful source of information on the importance of soil and how to develop a strategy for tracking soil health can be found in the recently published ‘Status of the World’s Soil Resources’ ( by the Natural Resources and Environment Department of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Box 1.1 in the report details the ‘Guidelines for Action’ from the World Soil Charter aimed at individuals, groups, governments and international organisations. The Agri-food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast produced a soil quality programme in 2004 which included methodology on monitoring, risk assessment and promotion of their work. Their work may be instructive in devising a soil health strategy.

7. There is currently no national monitoring programme in the UK. Long-term monitoring of soil quality is essential to provide an early warning of the potential effects different land use activities may be having on long-term soil and water quality e.g. the impact of changes in fertiliser usage (organic and mineral). Monitoring can help identify whether soil quality is degrading over time and what factors may be contributing to soil degradation e.g. the impact of climate change on greenhouse gas emissions from soils and carbon sequestration rates. This information can then be used to help manage our soil resources in a sustainable manner into the future and to guide the development of policies to protect soil, water and air quality across the UK.

What are the benefits that healthy soils can provide to society?

8. Healthy soils are the essential basis for human life; without healthy soils we have neither food nor drinking water. They support rich and sustainable environments for people to live in and are an enabling resource for the creation of many goods and services that sustain people’s livelihoods and quality of life. This is achieved through the provision of a secure and sustainable supply of food, and safeguarding the quality of surface and groundwater, especially for drinking. Soils also absorb rainfall, and loss of this function threatens worse flooding events, which in turn remove soils through erosion. The World Soil Charter describes the current status of soils as reaching ‘critical limits’ and shows that effective soil management is key to prevent any further degradation. This is particularly important in the context of future increases in food and fuel production and the projected increase in climate volatility which could put UK residents at significant risk from hazards such as flooding and water contamination.

9. On the role of soils and climate regulation: the ‘Status of the World’s Soil Resources’ report states that ‘all soils, whether managed or not, provide ecosystem services relevant to global climate regulation and multi-scale water regulation’. Degradation in the quality of soils around the world will result in the deterioration of the global ‘common-good’ services that are provided by soils in respect of climate. For this reason, a far reaching, international and joined up approach to soil protection is necessary to raise awareness of the importance of soils and to develop a strategy for its conservation.

What are the consequences of failing to protect soil health for the environment, public health, food security, and other areas?

10. In addition to the impacts on ecosystems and climate regulation there will also be significant health and welfare costs linked to increased pressure on food security and demand. A failure to properly protect soils for agriculture could lead to an increased reliance on imported food. This could set up a vicious cycle as current levels of degradation place pressures on food security which in turn leads to more irreversible degradation of soil quality. There is also a threat to the quality of drinking water and the potential for a rise in groundwater contamination. This would result from the breakdown of soils and the removal of the soil column as a filter for rainwater before it passes into the saturated zone. The removal of this uppermost section of the subsurface would also have significant implications for flood risk in the UK: an important natural barrier to flooding would be removed.

What measures are currently in place to ensure that good soil health is promoted? And what further measures should the Government and other organisations consider in order to secure soil health?

11. The question of current measures is best answered by the relevant regulatory bodies and scientific societies whose remit includes environmental management and hold the relevant data. Improved understanding of soil and evaluation of its potential should be at the heart of this strategy. A one size fits all protection policy is not workable; there is now wide acceptance of this conclusion on groundwater policy, but only after the roll out of the water framework directive. It would be prudent to take on board these lessons when designing a soil protection policy.

12. Further measures to consider include interrogation of existing water quality data (flow, suspended solids) in order to assess soil loss through flooding. The determination of the amount of soil organic matter, as a key proxy for soil quality, could be part of the basic description of any land, tagged to property transactions to demonstrate improvement or otherwise in the same way that energy efficiency is tagged to house descriptions. The Environment Agency and SEPA are the organisations that would be best placed to hold and manage these data, although there may be potential for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and/or the British Geological Survey to play a role in collecting them.

13. Soil pollution arising from both legacy contamination and new industrial processes and agricultural practises could pose a risk to human health and the environment. In order to understand potential risks, we must improve our evidence base by funding research in this area to monitor trends in soil pollution and examine links between concentrations of pollutants in soils and concentrations in other media (for example food and water).

14. Many of our respondents in compiling this submission recommended that the relevant UK regulatory bodies should be strongly encouraged to progress ‘joined up’ soil health policy and strategy development across England and the devolved nations as currently this is lacking. It was also suggested several times that the UK should be pressing for the EU Soils Directive to be implemented as soon as possible. The draft EU Soil Framework Directive was introduced by the European Commission in 2006 and, although this has not been brought forward as legislation, the commitment to sustainable soil use is in line with the Seventh Environment Action Programme.

15. Some of our colleagues responded on current policy in soil health as it relates to the regulatory environment in Northern Ireland. Currently, the legacy of contaminated land in Northern Ireland is dealt with solely through the planning regime as, although it has been enacted, Part 3 of the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 is not yet in force. The planning regime is effective in dealing with sites that are to be redeveloped, however there is no statutory means to clean up contaminated sites that are not intended for redevelopment (i.e. potentially high risk sites that have insufficient market value to drive redevelopment). Part 3 of the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order should be reviewed and amended as necessary to reflect European , national and local government policy changes related to soil and should be adopted to address this gap in statutory powers, with provision of appropriate funding to ensure this can occur effectively.

What role (if any) should soil health play in the Government’s upcoming 25 year plan for the natural environment?

16. Soil health should play a key role in the 25 year plan for the natural environment. Healthy soils are a key component to food security, a reduction in flood risk and climate change both of which are key areas of policy development over the next 25 years. As noted above, soils are an important control on CO2 removal from the atmosphere. We know how to manage them (and have done for almost 10,000 years), and if we ignore soil health or fail to manage it correctly then we will be creating the potential for US dustbowl type conditions to occur in key agricultural areas in the UK. In terms of food security, the quality of food grown depends primarily on the quality of soil and the availability of mined resources for agricultural fertilisers. The reliable sourcing of both is currently under threat and will be put under further pressure in the coming decades. In light of the recent flooding events of December 2015, the implications of poor soil health and soil degradation cannot be overstated. A failure to manage this resource carefully will lead to increased erosion of the soil column which will increase the risk of flooding in the UK and overseas.

17. At present, promotion of soil health in some parts of the UK is primarily in terms of the economic benefits to farmers and growers. While this is an important consideration, development of a holistic soil health strategy and monitoring programme would be a useful opportunity to raise awareness of the broader impacts of soil quality and its decline among regulators, those in industry and the public.