Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 4:00 pm, 30th June 2021

It is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Caithness. In many ways, my Amendment 112, which I am speaking to, echoes exactly what his is and in some respects may be regarded as superfluous.

My amendment is a simple one that merely adds the word “soil” to what the natural environment means. As we know, the Bill currently states that

“the ‘natural environment’ means—(a) plants, wild animals and other living organisms, (b) their habitats, (c) land … air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact”.

As we have just heard so eloquently from my noble friend Lord Caithness, however, it misses out what I—and I am sure many other noble Lords—feel is the very core of our natural environment. Too often soil, which is pivotal to biodiversity and a functioning environment, is considered as an afterthought or as an inert substrate. It needs to be specifically referenced to ensure that targets and set policies are developed and funding applied. The lack of such an approach means that we may not deal with issues such as soil health, which is generally acknowledged to be in pretty poor shape, as we have just heard.

Soil health problems in the UK’s 700-plus soils vary across types, regions, geography and weather. No clear figure exists for the health of the UK’s soils, but a 2020 review estimated that only 30% to 40% of Europe’s soils are healthy. We can be confident that soil degradation is a huge problem across the UK and that urgent action is needed. Average organic matter levels are declining, especially in arable soils. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, soil was inserted into the Agriculture Act and it is very important that we put it in this Bill too, because it is critical for agriculture, biodiversity and other reasons.

Organic matter is critical to soil health, biodiversity, productivity and carbon storage. UK soils store an estimated 10 billion tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 0.2 billion tonnes stored in UK vegetation. In 2013, soil carbon loss was estimated to amount to 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, higher than for many industrial and energy sources combined. Losses appear highest from peat and arable soils.

Soil erosion remains a critical problem. A 2020 review of studies found that 16% of arable farms had soil erosion so high that it was a threat to future food production. Increases in growing maize is a major problem. A survey of over 3,000 maize-growing sites in south-west England found that 75% of fields could not let rainwater in deeper than the upper soil layers, such that a heavy rainfall could wash the soil away. Sedimentation—linked to soil erosion on land—is a major problem in 5% of UK rivers.

We must not forget that peat soils are widely damaged. Around 8% of deep peat soils in the UK are being wasted, eroding or are bare. Upland peat soils are damaged from nitrogen deposition, overgrazing, drainage and, of course, burning. Lowland peat soils suffer rapid erosion from extraction and pump drainage for cultivation. Cultivated deep peat in the lowland fens, where a third of England’s fresh vegetables are grown, is also rapidly eroding. As peat soils have dried out, the land has sunk, exposing it to flooding from rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis. Many peat topsoils will disappear within decades unless they are rewetted so that peat formation can rapidly build them up again. Soil life has suffered.

Unlike terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, our soil life has not been well monitored. However, we know that many of the chemical actives applied to farm soils negatively affect soil microbial functions and biochemical processes, altering soil communities and diversity. Combined with ploughing, reducing crop diversity, acidification and losses in organic matter—a key source of food—soil life is being impacted. Research suggests that reduced soil life can affect crop growth, development and disease incidence, potentially resulting in a negative cycle of more agrochemicals being needed.

Only today, in a timely contribution, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend Philip Dunne, published its report Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? The report highlights the importance of soil in its summary, where it states as one of its recommendations:

“We support the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee that the development of soil indicators should be fast-tracked; that a shadow target for soil health should be established urgently; and that a legally-binding target for soil health ought to be established as soon as monitoring data allows. Healthy soils should be a priority outcome for the Environmental Land Management Schemes, so as to encourage farmers to adopt beneficial agri-environmental practices.”

The simple addition of a word would ensure that soil is properly considered as a priority alongside air, water and biodiversity within environmental plans, and of course by the OEP.

The amendment from my noble friend Lord Caithness is probably superior to mine, but I am not fussed about that. I am rather simple; I just like one word here and there. But, whatever it is, the Government have to take serious note and insert “soil” into the Bill.

Finally, before I metaphorically sit down, I also support Amendment 113, which has yet to be spoken to by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. It would ensure that the marine environment is included. I have a slight difficulty on whether it is necessary when talking about marine wildlife to particularly include marine mammals. I think they should be included anyway in the whole general thing, but I will leave that for others to discuss. I hope that we can insert “soil” into this Bill.