Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 4:15 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, I would like to say a word or two on behalf of soil and in support of Amendment 110 from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.

We are often told how much of the earth’s surface is covered by water and how we must take care of it—and so we must. However, we are told less often that the remainder of the world is covered largely by soil—or was, until we decided to spread concrete and tarmac over huge sections of it. That includes motorways, airports, houses and factories—even putting slabs over our own front gardens so that we can park our car. This has taken huge quantities of soil out of commission, with deeply damaging effects on the environment. A layer of concrete not only creates drainage problems by removing the soil’s ability to absorb water, causing the massive problems of run-off and flooding; it also sterilises the soil, cutting off oxygen from all living organisms beneath it. Nobody has yet tried to measure what the cumulative effect of this is but it will be huge.

Soil that has remained untouched for long periods of time is hugely beneficial to all kinds of flora and fauna. Sadly, it is all too rare. This is why our ancient woodlands are so very precious. Although it may not look it at first glance, soil structure is relatively fragile, ranging as it does from heavy clay through loams to sandy soils, and from acid to alkaline. Its health is valuable not just for growing crops and grass to graze but for supporting countless other organisms, some beneficial and some less so. All were held in a natural balance before man’s intervention.

Soil’s value to agriculture and the importance of keeping it in good health were first recognised formally by the great agricultural reformers of the 17th and 18th centuries, most notably Turnip Townshend and Coke of Holkham. The Norfolk four-course rotation was introduced; it varied the types of crops grown over a four-year cycle, sometimes allowing land to lie fallow. The practice of nurturing the land persisted until relatively recently when the pressures to produce more and more from the same acreage grew, with spectacular results. Some cereal crops have increased fourfold, but with this intensification has come a change of attitude to the soil. It is simply—and to some extent understandably, with modern technology—seen purely as a medium for growing crops. Systematic rotation has long since gone. The same crop is sometimes taken off the same land year after year. Spraying against pests and diseases has become regular and routine. To turn the clock back would be very difficult, although some organic farmers are now trying.

Food is essential but many would argue that it is much too cheap. A bottle of milk can still cost less than a bottle of fizzy water. Supermarkets, incidentally, have a crucial role to play in this regard. The proportion of our income that we spend on feeding ourselves has dropped hugely. The old links that customers made between production and consumption have long since been broken, although locally grown produce is increasingly popular. New government environmental policies are forecast to take 21% of land out of agriculture. Arable land and grazing, once carefully drained and cultivated, is going to be turned into marsh and swamp. Where the food lost will come from, nobody has yet told us.

These are very difficult issues requiring much thought, but they will have to be faced one day. Otherwise, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, our soils will simply, through infertility, disease or flooding, no longer be able to provide what we expect and have too long taken for granted. If I may, I, too, wish to quote what President Roosevelt said in 1937 in response to the huge dust-bowls that had been created in America; the noble Earl has already done so, but I think that it sums up the situation. He said:

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

That says it all.