Soil Health in the United Kingdom

1 May 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

What would an agricultural soil plan for the UK look like and which measures would we use to monitor its effectiveness? Do we know enough about soil and soil health indicators to be able to operationalize policies that would ensure that soil health is looked after and which would ensure that land gives us the kind of benefits that we collectively decide we want?

In late April, CSaP partnered with Cambridge Zero to host a workshop bringing together experts, policymakers, and civil society stakeholders to explore the next steps in the field of soil health and land management in the United Kingdom.

Soil is a rich ecosystem which underpins food production, biodiversity, carbon storage, flood protection, and nature recovery. However, it cannot perform these functions well when has degraded, compacted, eroded, or lost organic matter. To measure the health of our soils, scientists use several different indicators, including biological indicators such as earthworm density, chemical indicators, carbon content, pH levels, nutrient availability, urban soil contamination and bulk density. Different indicators need to be used depending on the land usage, and on the type of soil. Here, the extent of academic work on which soil metrics are most suitable is variable, with a decrease in understanding as the economic value of the soil type decreases.

However, impoverished soils which are not useful for agriculture may still have plant and animal communities which are dependent on them, while peatlands are vital for carbon sequestration and reducing flood risk. Consequently, understanding and preserving a diverse range of soil types is important for preserving biodiversity. Moreover, the simplest metric for soil management is whether ‘land is able to deliver its function’ while remaining healthy. In practice, this means understanding what we are trying to achieve from the land.

Bringing together scientific findings and good policy in the area of land and soils management has the potential to address population level needs for flood risk reduction, timber, the reduction of urban air pollution, spaces for recreation and wellbeing, biodiversity, carbon capture, and food security. However, there may be tensions and trade-offs in determining primary and secondary functions for land management while trying to support farming, biodiversity and water management. Discussion participants throughout this workshop made a case for spatially explicit land and soil management strategies, which would match land parcels to soil and land objectives. This is a process which could require engineering a social consensus around soils, necessitating the participation of stakeholders such as land managers, tenant farmers, landowners, public resource managers, funding agencies and public authorities, including at local and regional levels.

To learn more, you can read the full Soil Health Workshop Report here.

Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash