Amendment 2

Environment Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:58 pm on 6th September 2021.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

2: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, at end insert—“(e) soil health and quality.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment indicates that soil health and quality are a priority area for environmental improvement.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, Amendment 2 appears in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Curry of Kirkharle and Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I thank them all for their support, as well as others who would have offered their support had there been space under our procedures.

We have here a very simple amendment, but an improved amendment from Committee. As I listened to the discussion in Committee, it became obvious that we really needed to ensure that this amendment addresses both the health and quality of soil. I am simplifying slightly—I refer noble Lords to the discussion in Committee—but in a sense, in recent decades we have come to realise, in a way we had not before, that soils are complex ecosystems in their own right. The “health” element of this amendment very much addresses that biology aspect, whereas the “quality” element speaks more specifically to the chemical and physical composition of the soil. It is interesting that in our first debate today, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, highlighted the importance of soils when we are talking about biodiversity and climate. That is a useful introduction to this debate.

We debated soils at great length in Committee, so I will just briefly summarise some of the points raised. The UK loses more than 3 million tonnes of topsoil every year. Soil is degraded even while it remains in situ; almost 4 million hectares are at risk of compaction—the life and air squashed out of the soil, mostly by the passage of heavy farm machinery. Soil can also be contaminated through dangerous, damaging substances being swept or blown or landing on it—or still sometimes, sadly, being deliberately placed on it through error or fraud. We are also just beginning to understand micro- plastic pollution, something that cannot be escaped anywhere on this planet. Soils are stores of carbon too, of course. They are rich ecosystems and stores of life and biodiversity on a scale that we have barely begun to understand.

It is important to acknowledge that the Government, at least in some quarters, recognise the scale of this issue. The 25-year environment plan—supposedly the big, set-piece document outlining what the Government intend to do on many pressing issues—says that England’s soils must be sustainably managed by 2030. To drive home that point, that is little more than eight years away. In terms of farming practice, farmers are buying new machinery now that they might expect to use for many decades. In terms of the need urgently to plant trees, which is a soil health and quality issue as well as one in so many other areas, eight years is obviously not very long at all for them to reach any kind of size. Food manufacturers will have to think about their plans for the future and what crops might be available to them.

I credit the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for highlighting in Committee how your Lordships’ House, after a long wrestle, got a significant reference to soil in the Agriculture Act. This is very much its sister Bill, so surely we have to do the same thing here to get the two fitting and working together. In the priority areas of this Bill we have air and water quality, then there is a gap where soil obviously belongs and where this amendment puts it.

I want to address a couple of the points the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond, made in Committee. One response was that

“the Bill gives us the power to set legally-binding long-term targets on any aspect of the natural environment”.

A Secretary of State could set a target at any time, but given that there are a scant eight years to reach the Government’s own aim of 2030, why wait? Why would a world-leading Government wait?

The second response from the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, was that there is not enough information and knowledge about soils to know what the targets could be. I acknowledge, as I did in Committee, that there is a dreadful shortage of information on and understanding of soils. This is a result of the failure to fund independent agricultural research extending over decades and the outsourcing of it to agrochemical companies that have advocated highly profitable—for them—practices which have had such a disastrous impact on soil health and quality. I suggest that the Minister then contradicted himself when he said:

“Developing targets is an iterative process”.

In other words, this is something that is developed, evolved and finessed over time. These targets can be set, improved, developed and worked through. What we need in this Bill is a statement that soil has to be there with air and water.

Without this amendment, we have a Bill that is a two-legged stool. Someone pointed out to me that they were once used in dairy farming because you could wobble by hanging on to the cow, but that is not quite a practical arrangement for a legal process. Stools need three legs. What this small, modest, but important amendment does is put that third leg on the stool. In our Committee debate, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said that soil

“warrants its own independent priority status” and added that

“we are in danger of giving it a permanently second-tier status”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; cols. 87-93.] without the addition of this amendment. If we are going to be able to grow our food, cultivate and support our natural world and store the carbon that we must in the coming years, decades and centuries, this amendment has to be in this Bill.

Noble Lords will note that the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who might be expected to be in his place and commenting on this amendment, having attached his name to it, is not here. The noble Lord asked me to send his personal apologies for being unable to be here and to share some of his thoughts. He said: “I have attached my name to this amendment because it is illogical not to include soil health and quality as a key environmental indicator. Soil is our most precious asset, and its status will determine whether or not we achieve net zero by 2050 and whether or not we can feed 10 billion people by 2050. Nothing can be more important than these two objectives. The Republic of Ireland has just committed €10 million to carrying out a nationwide soil testing programme to establish a baseline of soil health and quality. We have the opportunity to do the same through the ELMS if we specify the standard of testing required and create a national database. Why could we not take this unique opportunity to position ourselves as global leaders in this crucial area, particularly with COP 26 approaching?”

I have indicated informally and will now indicate formally that, unless I hear an acceptance from the Minister that the Government will put the final leg on the stool, I intend to push this amendment to a vote. I really feel we can do nothing else; we will be utterly failing the future if we do not do this. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

My Lords, the Climate Change Committee has made it very clear that the soil is a crucial part of our remediation policies to deal with climate change. I declare an interest because, in a small way, I am an organic farmer and I have a son who is particularly interested in and works with those who want to use soil for sequestration. Whatever one’s interests may be, it is quite clear that the importance of soil is universal; it is a world problem. We have reduced the fertility of our soil almost universally over the past 40 and 50 years. I often want to say that five a day is worth about what four a day might have been some time ago. I am not sure that is scientifically accurate, but it expresses what the difference is—not only is it the fertility of the soil, but the trace elements in the soil.

What is rather curiously called “conventional farming” suffers from the problem that is does not put back the richness of the soil in the same way that historic methods of farming have done. We have to recognise that we have to change, because we cannot go on doing this. If you come, as I do, from the east of England, you know that more and more conventional famers are recognising that the way we farm gives us very few more harvests because we are denuding the soil.

The first reason that soil is crucial is because it is getting far less useful—if we only want to look at it from a utilitarian point of view. The second reason is because we need it to be better able to sequester. That means we really have to bring the soil back to the kind of strength that it had before the war.

The third reason it is crucial is that there are particular soils with special issues. I draw my noble friend’s attention to the question of peatland, which is a remarkable and wonderful sequester of carbon. But if it is ruined or torn up, it becomes the opposite and it exhales carbon, so we have a double whammy. The fact is that the Government have not even embarked on a peatland policy that will reach the level the Climate Change Committee says is essential to meet net zero—to restore all our peatlands by 2045. If we do it at the speed which is, at the moment, being celebrated by Defra, we will not get there.

It is crucially important—some sort of animal has just landed on me and clearly wishes to sequester upon me—to note that, unless we act on soil, we have very little chance of reaching net zero, because the “net” bit of net zero is about sequestration. It is not just about planting trees, although that is crucially important; it is about the whole way we deal with soil, including how we deal with the bare period, which should be covered, and the sorts of things that we can do and which we have to make sure are part of ELMS when it comes to the detail. All those things are essential.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to a very interesting thing: of earth, air and water, earth is the first. Again, one comes back to the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who reminded us of the nature of the Lord’s Prayer.

It is very important that soil should be part of this. My reason for speaking is simply because we have made that very clear in the Climate Change Committee’s report—which has been accepted by the Government and is the basis of our commitment to net zero and the way in which we are going to get there. It would be a great pity if we cannot find a way of including soil. It may be that the way the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, wants to do it has some technical problem which I have not so far seen, and I am perfectly prepared to be led down some path which enables some other way of doing this. But if we do not include soil, we are again saying something. There is no such thing as being able to negative something without making a statement. Therefore, we either have to do what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, would like us to do, or we have to find another way of making sure that soil is part of this.

I end by saying to my noble friend that there is a particular reason why Defra should be saying this: we have not heard enough from Defra about how we are going to improve the soil—we have not heard enough about the details. Therefore, we are not sure that Defra has really taken this on board. The Climate Change Committee is, I think, trying to say to Defra that this is central. For example, we have not yet banned horticultural peat. What on earth are we doing making it worse? We could do that immediately; the industry is ready for it, but we have not yet done it because we are still talking. Climate change gives us no time to talk about this—something that we should have done a long time ago. Please can we have this in the Bill, so that we know where we are and the Government can be held to it?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, I added my name to this amendment and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on the way that she presented it and added a few more points from the noble Lord, Lord Curry, in his absence. Now, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has spelled out most of what I was about to say. The reality is that this is a very straightforward amendment and one which would be easy, sensible and logical for the Minister to accept.

In relation to the back end of the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, Defra really has no excuse now. I have to admit that, 20 years ago, when I was a Defra Minister, soil management was not very high on the agenda; it was there, and it was vaguely there in the common agricultural policy and agro-environment schemes, but it was very low priority. And yet it is such a central issue to life on this earth and the future of the human race that we have a soil—both cultivated and in the wild—that will continue to be sustainable and be resilient enough to provide the multitudinous plants that sustain life for ourselves and for almost every other species on earth.

It is very odd that soil is not included in this simple subsection. The Minister should recognise that what has been obvious to farmers through the centuries and to gardeners every day—that we have to maintain the health of the soil—has been set back by practices over the last 50 or 60 years. It is not just pollution of the soil, loss to urbanisation and industrialised agriculture; it is also what we put on the soil through cheaper chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Some soil mismanagement is ancient, such as overploughing and trying to extract too many harvests, but some is very modern. We are capable of stopping it now and beginning to reverse this trend.

As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, the horrifying thing is that there has been huge research over the last 20 or so years, in Britain and around the world, showing that the soil in almost every habitat has seriously declined and is continuing to decline. In northern Europe, if we carry on like this, we will perhaps have only 50 more harvests sustainable by the nature of our soil. People who are born today will be only in mid-life by the time that crisis hits us here in prosperous, climate- friendly northern Europe.

Look at sub-Saharan Africa. If we are not careful, and if COP 26 and the other mechanisms the international community has do not give us a lead on soil, what was one of the most fertile areas of the world will go the way of north Africa several hundred years ago. That is a very real threat to us and to biodiversity.

As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has also underlined, soil is a very important part of our fight to reduce carbon. If soil is incapable of sequestering and retaining carbon, whatever targets we have on carbon reduction become meaningless.

I plead with the Minister simply to accept this amendment. It must be part of the agenda and should be upfront in this clause as a priority issue to address. I believe that, today, he could unite the House in accepting this amendment.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 5:15 pm, 6th September 2021

My Lords, I support this amendment very strongly. First, I declare my interests—for the whole of Report—as a farmer and landowner, as chair of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and as chair of an internet parking business.

For too long, in this country and elsewhere, we have ignored the importance of the 1 billion bacteria that should exist in every teaspoonful of our top-soil. We have ignored their vital importance for the foundation of life on our planet—food, habitats, everything. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has just said, the situation is particularly serious in sub-Saharan Africa, where we are losing good agricultural soils at a devastating rate. While obviously this Bill can do nothing about that, it would be good if the UK could lead by example and set the model for others to follow. Having soil as a priority area in our Environment Bill, and later, when we come to Amendment 18, having a serious soil management strategy, would be a good way to do this and would create a model for other countries to follow. I commend the emphasis on soils in this amendment and look forward to hearing the Government’s response.

Photo of Baroness Brown of Cambridge Baroness Brown of Cambridge Crossbench

My Lords, I support this amendment very strongly. I speak as the chair of the Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change. In June this year, we gave our advice to the Government on climate risks faced by the UK, and three of our eight urgent priorities are to do with the impacts of the changing climate on our soils—so it is not just those historic and current farming practices but the fact that our soils now have to put up with droughts, floods, high temperatures and wildfires. Of course, these are unfortunately only going to get worse. This means that we are giving them a very hard time—yet we are expecting them to sequester carbon and support the 30,000 to 50,000 hectares of trees that we need to be planting per annum to meet net zero, and we are expecting them to support increased food productivity to make room for planting those trees. We are expecting a lot from our soils; they need the support of this amendment.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative

My Lords, I added my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and I was pleased to do so because I, like others who have spoken, realise the importance of soil. In fact, I doubt that there is anyone in this Chamber today who does not appreciate that.

The question is whether we should put this where it is on the face of the Bill. As has already been said, my noble friend Lord Caithness’s amendment about a soil strategy will come later. I am very taken with the idea of putting this in the Bill. However, I have one note of caution. The next amendment, which I will speak to, will put in something else that I think is a priority, and I dare say that there are plenty of, or quite a few, others that people could put forward as priorities—we have our own pet subjects. I really want to hear from my noble friend the Minister—I know that he believes in this—what Defra and the Government are taking seriously about this and how they will deal with it. This may not be the way to put it forward in the Bill, but at the moment it seems like the best way. I am very taken with my noble friend Lord Caithness’s amendment that we will come to later, which might be a better alternative. That said, I shall listen to what my noble friend says.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Randall, to be of good cheer and believe that this is the solution—because it seems to me that we have heard, from many noble Lords of high esteem, just how important soil is as a fundamental part of the environment. Indeed, two of the Government’s priorities in Clause 1(3), “water” and “biodiversity”, are crucially dependent on soils, apart from anything else. It is true to say that, as well as very many noble Lords being able to lay down the case very clearly for soil being part of the Government’s priority list, the Government themselves have said that: in their 25-year environment plan, they mentioned soil quality 17 times, so it does not seem to me to beyond the wit of man to believe that that looks like a bit of a priority and probably ought to be in this list.

I know that, in Committee, the Minister said that the science will not let us measure soil health, but there has been research on soil quality for the last 50 years, and lots of measures have been put forward as indicators of soil health, ranging from microbes to organic matter to earthworms. The Government just need to make a stab at a basket of indicators and get on with measuring and incentivising improvement.

Although I have banged on for many years about government needing to incentivise people to produce outcomes, in this particular case I want to recant from that and ask for the reverse practice, which is to incentivise practices that have a proven effect for good on soil health. If we can get farmers, land managers and others who have an impact on the soil to do the right things, good soil quality will result.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, talked about a few of those things, such as minimum tillage, crop rotations, applications of manures and composts, use of cover crops and effective management of field margins. If farmers and land managers were incentivised to do all of those, we would be almost absolutely guaranteed to be improving the health of the soil. As such, I urge the Minister: soil health is too important to say, “It is too difficult” and to leave it out of the Government’s priority list.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Randall for pointing out that my Amendment 18 is coming up, complementing this amendment in that it asks the Government to “prepare a soil … strategy”. No one could have put it better than the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, just now, and much of what she said is reflected in the wording that I have in Amendment 18, which we shall come to.

However, the Government must include plans for the integration of soil management with environmental objectives, such as climate mitigation, flood-risk minimisation, water-quality measures and policies relating to food production. All of this is so integrated that, unless one has a comprehensive approach to it, one will fail. In my view, it is very sad that the Government have got policies for air and water but no statutory policy for soil. My Amendment 18, which I will not speak to at length because I am speaking to this amendment, is equally as important as this amendment.

My noble friend Lord Deben mentioned that soil is a great sequestrator of carbon. Indeed it is, but saying “soil” is like saying “fruit”—there are so many different types of soil that a different approach will have to be taken on most farms, probably, because the soil varies so much. Some of the sandy soils are not terribly good sequestrators; they could be made much better with improved farm management, but, if you have a heavy clay soil, you have an inbuilt advantage for sequestration from day 1.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said how little Defra spent on soil. It is rather frightening that only 0.4% of the environmental budget is spent on soil—that is a catastrophically low amount of money, which is why this amendment is so important and why my Amendment 18 is equally important. The whole question of soil and research needs much more expenditure and we need to be clearer on it, but let us have one basic fact in mind: about 25% of our biodiversity is in our soil. That is why we need to get this amendment—and mine —in the Bill.

Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench

My Lords, I should note, for the record and for the whole of Report, my interest as a Devon farmer. For many years, we have been adding organic matter to our porous red sandstone soils to increase sequestration, combat run-off, build resilience to drought, decrease the need for chemical fertilisers and provide Teignbridge District Council with somewhere to put all the garden waste.

In Committee, we debated a number of potentially priority areas in Clause 1(3). I am glad that this one in particular has returned, and I will strongly support it. I would have added my name to it if it had not been so eminently oversubscribed. I am less keen on Amendment 3, the light-pollution amendment, which pales in comparison and importance to this one.

The prior debate on these amendments only explained how important this is. In Committee, the Minister confirmed that our understanding of soils is

“not as complete as it should be.”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; col. 95.]

He begged for more time to gather the necessary data. There is simply no more time to do so: our soils are in a crisis and have only a few harvests left, as we have heard from a number of noble Lords. If it is not a priority, how will we ever gather that data? How will Defra be instructed to gather it? The absence of data is seriously damaging the debate on environmental matters, and it is encouraging a number of extremes.

Take the debate on grass-fed meat and dairy. It is a topic close to the hearts of all Devon farmers. We all agree on the negative impact of indoor lot-fed meat and dairy consuming grain and soya in terrible welfare conditions, but no one knows the net environmental impact of beef and sheep fed on the ancient green pastures of the West Country because the data and the science are not there and everybody has an argument. This was confirmed to me just last week in discussions with an eminent environmental scientist at Exeter University. We really need that data, and this amendment needs to be made to encourage Defra to collect it.

Finally, if we do not have all the data, this does not preclude soil being a priority area. Clause 1(2) requires only that the Government

“set a long-term target in respect of at least one matter within each priority area.”

Surely Defra can come up with a single priority or measure with respect to soil that it will be happy with. As we heard from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, we live in the earth; that is, the soil. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the Climate Change Committee have said, this amendment should be made.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee 5:30 pm, 6th September 2021

My Lords, we very much thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for moving this amendment on soil. As noble Lords have mentioned, if we do not have soil as a priority area, how will we have the sustainable food we need in future and how will we support the essential microbial organisms that live in and on the soil? Indeed, as noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, asked, how will we manage our carbon sequestration and net-zero targets without that? It is absolutely essential that the Government make soil a priority.

We accept some of the arguments put forward by the Minister in Committee—the noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred to them—concerning issues that the Government have had. The progress achieved has not yet resolved the definition and description of soil quality. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said in Committee, it is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Do you have the research base first so that you can sort out the targets or do you need the targets first to ensure that you then get the information?

That pertinent point has informed our thinking on this because there are other ways in which the Government could show that soil is the priority it needs to be. For example, they could go along the route of the soil strategy of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. It is a compelling approach; he sees it as complementary. Perhaps that is another route. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, this House wants the Government to show that soil is a fundamental, critical issue and, as the Member’s explanatory statement says, to indicate

“that soil health and quality are a priority area for environmental improvement.”

That is the purpose of the amendment. The question is whether the route taken—having a long-term target—is the best way forward. I must say, I have gone back and forth in my mind about whether it is, but I have come down in favour of supporting the noble Baroness’s approach should she press this amendment to a vote because, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said, we must undertake this research to ensure that we can define and describe soil quality. It is a fundamental requirement for us to get the point where we can achieve what we need to on soil quality.

In my mind, if we do not set soil as a priority area, there is a real risk that the Government could choose to spend money in other areas. In future years, there will be myriad requests of Defra for research in the environmental field. We have so much to do in such a short space of time. Projects will come in left, right and centre, looking for money to take forward. If we do not specify that we have a long-term target for soil health, there is a real fear that future Defra budgets will be under serious constraints to deliver that necessary work.

Therefore, unless the Minister can, in summing up, assure the House that there will not be a curtailment of finances to resource this essential work on soil in future—we have to do that work to protect soil for all the important reasons outlined so eloquently by others —we will support the noble Baroness’s amendment.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has spoken eloquently on this issue, both in Committee and during this stage of the Bill.

By failing to list soil health alongside air, water and biodiversity in the Bill, the Government have missed the opportunity to list the important aspect of monitoring soil health as a means of improving the environment. I hope that they can address this and show that they mean business by giving the important issue of soil health the attention it requires. We are all aware of the firm commitment to improved soil health in the new Agriculture Act, yet, to reverse the degradation of our soils and return them to a healthy state nationally, we need a long-term commitment to monitoring at both the farm and national level.

The simple truth is that, without a functioning monitoring programme, we are being kept in the dark over the state of our soils. A freedom of information request made by the Sustainable Soils Alliance revealed that, unlike for water and air, no single policy instrument exists to improve and protect them, and they are suffering as a result. As a BBC article states, the alliance discovered that

“just 0.41% of the cash invested in environmental monitoring goes on examining the soil”— a point also made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The article goes on:

“That’s despite the fact that soils round the world—including in the UK—are said to be facing a crisis. The figures are startling: £60.5m goes to monitoring water quality, £7.65m to checking on air—but just £284,000 to auditing soil … Its director … told BBC News: ‘This figure is staggering—but not surprising. It reflects the widespread under-investment in soil health compared to air and water. We could be actually saving money—and the environment—by investing in soil monitoring because understanding soil would tell us a great deal about the health of our water and air too.’ … A report by the Commons Environment Audit Committee in 2016 warned that some of the UK’s most fertile fields were losing so much soil they could become unproductive within a generation … The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News”— this was in March last year—

“it was planning to design an indicator for healthy soils, and to establish a new national soil monitoring scheme. It says powers in the Agriculture Bill could be used to support the monitoring.”

What is the update on this? Currently, we see no evidence that Defra will commit to funding soil monitoring.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, made the point that we just have not heard enough from Defra. My noble friend Lord Whitty said that there can be no time for excuses from Defra. What does the Minister plan to do to address the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and noble Lords across the House regarding the lack of references to soil health in the Bill, and to ensure that soil health is not left as an afterthought? I know that he will refer the House to the power in Clause 1 to give the Government the ability to

“set long-term targets in respect of any matter which relates to … the natural environment, or … people’s enjoyment of the natural environment.”

However, this power must be used actively to focus government action on environmental improvement in areas where the need is greatest.

We urge the Government to address the clear desire for stronger action on monitoring soil health through the target development process that the Bill will establish. This must be done holistically and transparently with early and effective stakeholder engagement. The Government should publish a timetable and plan for how they intend to progress targets. On current performance, they are failing soil health and, ultimately, the environment.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, in particular, for tabling Amendment 2 on soil health. She made a compelling speech, as she did in a previous session, describing soil as an ecosystem in its own right: an ecosystem—or ecosystems—that we are plundering and destroying at an extraordinary rate of millions of tonnes every year.

It is often cited as an example of extraordinary human progress that we have managed to treble food production in the past 40 years, and that is true, but we have done so at the expense, undoubtedly, of many future generations. It is the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, pointed out, that many of the bread baskets of the world have been pretty rapidly converted into deserts. According to the latest data that I have seen, at least 500,000 small farmers in the world are currently having to deal with diminishing yields as a consequence of their impoverished soils. As a Minister in the FCDO with some responsibility for part of our ODA budget, this is something I am trying very hard to shift the focus towards, so that it is a problem that, I hope, the UK will be able to have a positive impact on.

Bringing this back to the domestic, I would like to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that we are working out now how to develop the appropriate means of measuring soil health. It is complicated but we are doing that work and its results could be used to inform a future soils target. However, as I outlined a number of times in Committee, long-term targets set under the framework of the Bill have to be capable of being objectively measured. If we commit in the Bill to setting a target by 2022, without the reliable metrics needed to set a target, and then measure its progress, we could be committing to doing something that ultimately we cannot deliver or might not even know whether we have delivered it. We therefore cannot commit to set a soil target in the Bill, but I can assure the noble Baroness of a number of things.

The first is that we are focusing our efforts already on developing a soil health measuring and monitoring scheme, which will produce a baseline assessment of soil health against which change can be measured. This, as I said, could inform a future long-term soil target. Secondly, we are currently identifying soil health metrics as the basis of a healthy soils indicator. This will complement a future soil health monitoring scheme by providing a straightforward measure—

Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench

Does the Minister accept that under Clause 1(2) we need to set only a single metric? Is he saying that there is not a single metric that Defra can set that would impact soil? Is that correct?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I was coming to the point made by the noble Earl. As part of the soil health measuring and monitoring scheme, we are developing methodology to enable visual field assessments of soil health to be carried out by farmers and land managers across all land uses and all soil types. That will be supported by the development of field protocols and the production of field guides instructing land managers how to do the sampling. That work will, we hope, be a user-friendly and relatively easy way of measuring long-term trends, which I think is what the noble Earl was getting at—trends that can easily be understood by those on the ground who actually manage the soil. Data collected by land managers will then provide a baseline for an informal, non-statutory target, which in turn could inform the future, robust and well-evidenced soil health target that will be established under the Environment Bill. The data from the soil structure scheme would feed into future soil health monitoring.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we are also proposing additional actions that support land managers and farmers to achieve sustainable soil management. For example, the sustainable farming incentive scheme—she referred to it as ELM, but I think it is now referred to as the sustainable farming incentive scheme—includes practices such as the introduction of herbal leys, the use of grass-legume mixtures, cover crops and so on.

I make two additional points. The first, very briefly, is that by setting, as we are committing to do in the Bill, a 2030 biodiversity target, and having already set, on the advice of the Climate Change Committee, a net-zero target by 2050, in addition to all the other targets that are either in the pipeline or already committed to, it is inconceivable that we could achieve either of those headline targets without addressing soil, for all the reasons mentioned and explained so well by noble Lords today: we cannot get to net zero without addressing soil.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, mentioned peatlands, which are particularly important for the reasons he described. Although I think we shall debate this issue later—potentially today in response to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—I just mention that earlier this year we published the England Peat Action Plan, setting out the long-term vision for large-scale management, protection and restoration of our peatlands, which are critical carbon stores but, when mismanaged, can become a source of carbon. This will enable them to deliver a huge range of benefits for people, wildlife and the planet. It sets out a number of policies to achieve that vision: the announcement of a nature for climate peatland grant scheme, through the Nature for Climate Fund; an immediate commitment to restoring 35,000 hectares through that fund; a commitment to end the use of peat in amateur horticulture by the end of this Parliament; longer-term plans that we are setting out, as all departments are, in our net-zero strategy—peatlands will be a critical part of getting to net zero; and a new spatial map of England’s peatlands to enable us to make more robust estimates around the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands and to prioritise investment in restoration.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee 5:45 pm, 6th September 2021

I thank the Minister very much for allowing me to intervene briefly. I want to wind back a few moments in his response to this debate, in which he said, as I heard it, that we will not be able to achieve the biodiversity target without improving soil health. I want to clarify what was meant by that. Does it mean that, in the indicator species that will be part of the biodiversity target and halting species decline—the billion bacteria to which my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington referred, as well as the tens of thousands of protozoa and fungi in a single teaspoon of soil—they will be part of the species abundance target and therefore soil health will be folded into that objective?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. We will talk in detail about the target shortly—perhaps even next—but my point is less about the individual fungi or bacteria; it is that you cannot deliver a reversal of our catastrophic biodiversity loss without tackling ecosystems and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, make plain in her speech, soil is the basis of so much of our biodiversity and ecosystems, so it is logical that you cannot do one without the other—and likewise with net zero, for all the reasons that my noble friend Lord Deben pointed out.

So, as I have outlined, we are very much on the case. We are developing a metric and prioritising soil health in numerous ways, through this Bill but also other actions. The amendment would undoubtedly pre-empt the process of developing that metric and, for that reason, we cannot accept it—but, with the assurances I gave, I hope that the noble Baroness can be persuaded to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I think this has been some of your Lordships’ House at its finest and I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. It is extraordinarily striking that, from all corners of this House, we have seen overwhelming support for Amendment 2.

I do feel I must address the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, who signed the amendment and then expressed some concern about it. I do not believe that there is any form of conflict or competition between this amendment and Amendment 18 from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. This amendment sets out that there must be a target; Amendment 18 sets out a process, scheme and operational activity. So they are not in competition. I strongly urge your Lordships’ House to support the noble Earl’s amendment. Indeed, I attempted to sign it, but, as with a number of others, it was already oversubscribed.

I should love to go through so many contributions—each has added something to the debate—and acknowledge them all, but I know that some of the people who are keen for the Bill to progress would be right on my case if I did that, so I will not. But I shall pick out just a couple of contributions, because I think they are particularly important. They are from two members of the Climate Change Committee: the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. This is the expert view saying that the amendment needs to be in the Bill; that is the independent view, in all senses. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, made a point that no one else has made in our long discussion of soils, about the way in which climate change is putting pressure on soils: drought, flood, fires and all the extra damage to what has already been done.

I also want to note the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. She has been a particularly fervent supporter of this amendment, and I thank her for that. I also thank her for counting the number of times that soil quality appears in the 25-year plan; I confess that I had not done that. That shows that the Government kind of see the issue but are just really not engaging with it in the Bill.

So I will address a couple of points that the Minister made. He talked a lot about what Defra is doing operationally and what it is setting out, but he did not really address my point that the 25-year plan says that we will have sustainable management of soils by 2030. How can we do that without having this long-term target to progress towards—without, indeed, having the noble Earl’s strategy? It was particularly telling that one of the other chief points of the Minister’s argument was, “Oh, well, we deal with these other things—biodiversity and water—and that will fix soils”. That is making soils a second-order issue, which is putting it in profoundly the wrong place. This amendment puts it in the right place: in the Bill. As we have discussed in so many other areas, whatever the department might be doing under one Secretary of State, there is no guarantee that it will continue under another Secretary of State. Issues must be put in the Bill.

I well understand the pressures in your Lordships’ House against calling votes; I understand the desire to progress the Bill. But, having listened very carefully to the Minister and having heard the very strong support for the amendment from all sides of your Lordships’ House, I must ask to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 209, Noes 166.

Division number 2 Environment Bill - Report (1st Day) — Amendment 2

Aye: 209 Members of the House of Lords

No: 166 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Amendment 2 agreed.