My Lords, I declare two interests—one as a member of the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside, and the other in the mental well-being of the Minister. We are picking on him and I feel deeply sorry for him, because he is between a rock and a hard place. This is another example of an amendment that, in a normal world, he would simply accept and we could all go home happy.
I support Amendments 110 and 112, which rightly specifically include “soil” in the definition of the natural environment. As other noble Lords have said, we have already touched on the importance of soils during our debate on a previous amendment. Indeed, many of our older Members of the House will remember Kenneth Williams who, in character, used to say in response to any question at all, “Arr, the answer lies in the soil.” He was right. However, for a period, with the exception of the organic movement, soil came to be regarded as nothing more than a handy medium for holding plants up, especially crops. It was nothing more complex. Of course, the pendulum has now swung and it is generally acknowledged that soils are complex ecosystems with huge importance for a whole range of things such as carbon storage, flood alleviation, crop health, biodiversity and water quality. Other noble Lords have gone through these.
It is true to say—the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside very much supports this—that agroecology and restorative agriculture, which focus on the importance of soils, are going to be vital components of the future of farming and food production. Of course, the mycorrhizal elements of soils are the telegraph systems for trees and plants and are capable of warning colleague trees and plants many metres away of attack by something nasty, so that they can prepare to repel boarders. Basically, soil is pretty cunning stuff. However, it has been the poor relation in terms of environmental action and safeguarding in the past, and more than one-third of the world’s soils are degraded. That is no less the case in this country, with factors such as erosion, sealing, compaction and contamination causing this deterioration.
I very much welcome the 25-year environment plan highlighting the need to manage all the UK’s soils sustainably by 2030. Signalling the importance of soils in environmental protection ought to be the purpose of including soil in the definition of the natural environment in this Bill. It is not just a practical step; it is a signalling step of the fundamental importance of soil.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, reminded us that one of the reasons given by the Minister for not including soil was that to include it would require a target and the science was not there yet to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said that we need a soil metric now and it does not need to be perfect. I very much agree with that. Indeed, that has been endorsed today by the report from the Environmental Audit Committee in the Commons, which stressed the need for the rapid development of soil indicators and for a shadow target to be established urgently in the meantime.
We are going to need soil metrics for a whole variety of purposes, not least because soil is going to be fundamental to the environmental land management schemes. Let us get on with it and establish a metric. It will not be right but it will be something, and it will be a huge signal of the importance of soils in this section of the Bill.