Amendment 18

Environment Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 8th September 2021.

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The Earl of Caithness:

Moved by The Earl of Caithness

18: After Clause 16, insert the following new Clause—“Soil management strategy for EnglandSoil management strategy for England(1) The Secretary of State must prepare a soil management strategy for England.(2) The soil management strategy for England must set out Her Majesty’s Government’s objectives, priorities and policies for the sustainable management of soil in England during the period to which the strategy relates.(3) That period must not be shorter than 10 years.(4) The soil management strategy for England must include—(a) a commitment to the long-term monitoring of soil quality and health,(b) a definitive open access map identifying the different soil types,(c) plans for the integration of soil management with environmental objectives such as climate mitigation, flood risk minimization and water quality measures and policies relating to food production, and(d) targets for achieving the sustainable management of soil on Grade 1 and Grade 2 agricultural land (and other soils where necessary).(5) The Secretary of State must publish—(a) an annual statement on progress against the soil management strategy for England, and(b) after a period of three years beginning on the day this Act is passed, a review of the effectiveness of the soil management strategy for England including any necessary revisions of the strategy.(6) Before the end of the period to which the soil management strategy for England relates, the Secretary of State must prepare a new strategy for a new period that must not be shorter than 10 years.”

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 18. Some of your Lordships will remember a BBC radio comedy series called “Beyond Our Ken” in which there was a gardener, Arthur Fallowfield, played by the late Kenneth Williams. His stock reply to any question was, “The answer lies in the soil”. Arthur Fallowfield was more right than he could possibly have imagined, because the answer to many of our problems lies in the soil, as we discussed in Committee and on the first day of Report when we discussed the amendment on soil of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. That is why I have tabled Amendment 18, which asks the Government to prepare a

“soil management strategy for England”.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. That is cross-party support, and it is clear that such a strategy is needed.

I will be brief, as I said I would be on Monday, because I said most things then, but may I reiterate a couple of points? Why are there strategies for water and air when there is not a strategy for soil? My noble friend the Minister will be aware that in 2020 a survey showed that 16% of our arable soils were being lost through erosion at such a high rate that they are likely to become unproductive. Some 25% of biodiversity lives in the soil. My noble friend the Minister has stated on many occasions that he wants Britain to be a world leader. I give him the opportunity now with soil. By including this amendment in the Bill, we will become a world leader and we will be able to point to it when we come to COP.

My final point, as an ex-Treasury Minister, is on cost. It will not cost the Government anything to prepare a soil strategy. If it is prepared and implemented, it will actually save the Government money. It will improve our environment and farming, which will benefit us all.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, I am very pleased to support the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in this amendment. If anything needs a strategy, it is the soil. As was talked about on Monday night, the air, the water and the soil are the three pillars on which we exist, and I would say that the soil is the most important. It is a magical world that we know very little about. People can name the planets, but they cannot name a single thing that lives in the soil. Indeed, it is a whole complex world that lives on a different timescale and on a different planet, as it were, from us because it is all so tiny, but that does not make it any less complicated. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, 25% of our biodiversity lives in the soil.

As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, pointed out, soil is already degraded, and the five a day we have to eat is now probably four, because we have so weakened this magical substance. We also give it a very bad press. We talk about the dirt beneath our feet; every single laundry advert has someone coming back muddy, as though this is something that we do not like. We treat our soil—this extraordinary world—in the most amazing way, because twice a year, a plough goes through, which, if you can imagine it, is literally like your town, your house and your landscape being bombed to pieces. Despite that, our soil struggles on.

As I pointed out the other day about rivets in planes and when biodiversity starts to turn in the wrong direction, our soils are depleting. Various figures have been given, but most people in this House were nodding when it was said we have maybe 50 harvests left. That may be an exaggeration, but we cannot live on chemicals any more. The soil is also our most valuable means of storing carbon if we treat it right.

Soil is there to help us, to enable us to live on this planet and thrive. It seems to me that this needs a strategy. This is where government should come in. There are lots of people out there campaigning about water and clean air. The soil gets a seriously poor look-in, and if the Government are there to protect the most precious elements of our life, we need a soil strategy.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, I added my name to this amendment. I will not go over the ground again. The noble Earl and the noble Baroness have made the case strongly, and it was made strongly on Monday. But I would say one thing to the Minister: on Monday, he was reluctant to accept the amendment that made a priority of soil management, which, as the noble Baroness has just said, has historically not been given attention. The neglect of that dimension of agricultural land use and environmental policy is one of the most dangerous things confronting humanity.

Soil is essential for our food, our biodiversity, our ecosystems and our very survival. Therefore, even if the Minister and his colleagues decide that the priority we voted on in this House on Monday is not to their liking, and they want to delete it or alter it, whatever they do at that level in this Bill, operationally they need a strategy of the kind that is laid out in the noble Earl’s amendment. No amount of arguing about priorities will change the fact that it is absolutely clear that soil must be one of our priorities, and we need a plan as laid out in this amendment to operationalise that priority. I do hope that, whatever the circumstances, the Minister will accept this amendment.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of Cawood Scientific, which provides analysis of soil and other agricultural products. I apologise that I was unable to be present on Monday, but I was very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for quoting me in her speech. Let me, without duplication, endorse what has been said already and perhaps expand on my comments repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on Monday.

The Republic of Ireland has decided to carry out an extensive survey of its soil. It is spending €10 billion this year and is expected to spend a similar amount over the next three years to have a comprehensive understanding of the quality of the soil throughout the entire Irish Republic. Northern Ireland is considering a similar approach, so the whole island of Ireland will have, I hope, a soil-mapping exercise that will provide it with all the data it needs to make informed decisions to improve the quality of its soil.

I attended the Rothamsted Research centre a few years ago and met the soil scientists. The thing that stuck in my mind was when a scientist said, “Once soil is completely degraded, it is impossible to recreate soil.” I thought that was a tribute to what was concluded with perfection in the Garden of Eden. Once we have degraded our soil completely, we have lost it for ever. So, why would we in England not wish to take a leading global position and understand the quality of our soil and have a strategy to address that quality? We need to do this. We have a vehicle to do it through the ELMS, when testing soil will be part of the encouragement that farmers will be given. It would be a simple matter to extend the responsibility in terms of quantifying and qualifying what soil testing actually means and to establish a standard nationally that would give us the same data and information that the Republic of Ireland will have. Why would we not do that?

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

If noble Lords have noticed my silence at earlier stages of the Environment Bill, it is because my noble friend Lady Jones has been very ably joined on the Front Bench by my noble friends Lady Hayman and Lord Khan. It is now a much better team, and I congratulate them. But I too had noticed the omission of soil and improvement targets. I declare my interest as a working farmer and wholeheartedly support Amendment 2, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. Her points were very well made on Monday night, and I am glad the House agreed.

The Soil Association was aptly named by Lady Eve Balfour following the Dust Bowl events in America in the 1930s. Amendment 18 complements Amendment 2 in proposing a soil management strategy in rolling 10-year cycles. This is very important, and soil is, to some extent, recognised within Defra, in that farmers need to comply with regulations concerning NVZs—nitrate vulnerable zones—concerning the application of manures, fertilisers and water run-off.

The importance of soil is also recognised by and included in the advice to government by the Climate Change Committee, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Deben, for his powerful words in drawing attention to this. Not enough attention is paid by Defra, as soil compaction is becoming ever more problematic, as farmers’ machinery becomes bigger and more powerful to cover the necessary acreage needed to remain profitable while catching favourable weather conditions.

I thank Professor Karl Ritz of Nottingham University, introduced to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for sending me his paper, “The Groundswell 5 Principles and Soil Sense”, which wisely recognises:

“Regenerative agriculture wisely puts soil health at the heart of its concepts and practices.”

It underlines the five principles as: diversity; protect soil surface; maintain living roots; minimise soil disturbance; and, finally, livestock integration.

This allows me to ask the noble Earl why, under proposed new subsection (4)(d) in his amendment, he highlights only

“the sustainable management of soil on Grade 1 and Grade 2 agricultural land”. while putting in brackets “other soils where necessary.” The noble Earl will know that much of the livestock grazing on the west side of Britain is categorised as grade 3, where soil structure and stockholding capacity are also important as primary business assets, providing nutritious food to the nation. All soils should be included, as they support all terrestrial habitats, store and filter water, sequestrate carbon and nutrients, and even inform us of the past.

Peatlands and uplands are also vital and part of Defra’s strategy for flood management. The Climate Change Committee recommends the full restoration of peatlands by 2045. Could the Minister write to your Lordships, as time is short, updating the House on the department’s peatland strategy and say when the banning of horticultural peat is scheduled to take place and whether this could be brought forward? There may also be drafting issues with this amendment that the Minister may take exception to.

I stress that soil management must be included as an element under ELMS, the new support payment system for agriculture. Will the Minister also undertake to write to me with the latest information on trials being conducted on the introduction of the ELMS, which are still needed by agriculture to balance the progressive withdrawal of area-based payments, pointing out where soil management will be undertaken within the new ELMS?

Nature does not like a bare soil and tries to cover up as soon as possible. Will the Minister commit to covering this important element of our environment under targets supplementing others in this Bill?

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:30 pm, 8th September 2021

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, who has contributed so much on these issues to the House over many years. I want chiefly to reiterate a point that I made on Monday, when your Lordships’ House backed Amendment 2. There is no conflict between that amendment and this one, so ably introduced by the noble Earl and supported by all other speakers in this debate today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, pointed out that the 25-year environment plan mentions soil quality 19 times. In that debate on Monday, the Minister talked about how the sustainable farming initiative scheme includes practices such as the introduction of herbal leys, the use of grass-legume mixtures, cover crops and so on—as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, just referred to. The Minister talked also about how complicated it was to measure soil health but said that the Government were doing that work. So we have these suggestions here, there and everywhere, but what this amendment would do—I hope that we might hear some good news from the Minister when he stands up shortly—is join this all up. Joined-up government is one of those favourite phrases we hear very often. It is clear that your Lordships’ House believes, and it is clear from the science, that soils absolutely are the foundation. As the noble Earl said, we have a water strategy and an air strategy; we have to have a soil strategy, just as we have to make soils a priority. This is joined-up government; this is sensible, practical work to make sure that the Government are working towards one goal, which has to be healthy, high-quality soils.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, on Monday, we debated adding soil health and quality to Clause 1. Many noble Lords from all sides of the House spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the need to monitor and improve the quality of our soil. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, gave an excellent summary of the attacks from all sides on our soil. In response, the Minister said that it was difficult to measure soil quality and indicated that the Government were working towards targets that could be measured with reliable metrics. He felt the amendment would pre-empt that work. However, the House did not agree with him.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, is also passionate about the quality of soil and has spoken extremely eloquently to his Amendment 18. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, have also spoken in favour and added their names to the amendment. If we are fully to appreciate the role of soil, its condition and how we as a nation might best help to improve its quality, we will need a soil management strategy for England. The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, although not in his place today, on Monday recommended this amendment to the House.

As noble Lords have previously said, there are many different types of soil. They contain billions of essential bacteria, but over the years, by the continued spraying of chemicals to control insect pests, prevent weed growth and promote the growth of crops, we have denuded the soil of its quality. Whether the soil is of grade A agricultural value, peat bogs, clay, sandy or containing lime, it is all suffering. The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, has given an excellent example of the strategy adopted in Ireland. It is time that we followed that example.

I fully support the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in his desire to introduce a soil strategy into the Bill. The timeline set out in his amendment, of a 10-year strategy to be reviewed and renewed for another 10 years after that, is right. It would give adequate time for a proper action plan to be implemented for the different types of soil and the uses to which they are put. It would give time for the soil to recover and to be adequately measured, and for the Government, landowners and farmers to see whether their actions had been successful.

Given that everyone across the House fully supports the amendment, I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept it, despite what his briefing notes might say.

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

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Grantchester for his kind comments and for all his excellent advice and support on this issue.

This has been a very interesting short debate. I want to thank in particular the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for speaking so passionately on soil health and management and for furthering the issue. From reading his contributions on this Bill and previously on the Agriculture Bill, it is evident that he cares deeply about this issue.

According to the Sustainable Soils Alliance, poor soil management releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which contribute 21% of total UK agricultural emissions. In contrast, healthy soils sequester carbon rather than releasing it, while also increasing resilience to floods and droughts.

We hope that the Minister will have taken note of the earlier amendment on soil health and will use it as an opportunity to bring forward a wider soil management strategy. The Government need to note the strength of feeling in the House and give this important issue its due attention, rather than leave it as an afterthought, which seems to be their current strategy.

What does the Minister plan to do to reverse the currently fragmented approach to soil policy? I know it has been said that the answer lies in the soil, but on this serious issue of a soil strategy, the answer lies with the Minister. I look forward to his response and the joined-up approach, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

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 regarding Amendment 18, tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness. I thank him for his correspondence on this issue over the summer, for the discussions we have had and for his passionate speech earlier. I assure him that we of course remain committed to sustainably managed soils by 2030, as laid out in the 25-year environment plan and the action we are taking to get there. I will not repeat the case for soils, because we touched on that on Monday but also because we have heard some compelling speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, my noble friend Lord Caithness in introducing the amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, who made the critical point about the carbon values of soils.

I want to start by emphasising the actions I outlined in our debate on Monday which the Government are undertaking to improve soil health. We will produce a baseline assessment of soil health, which could inform a potential future long-term soils target. We are currently identifying soil health metrics to complement a future soil health monitoring scheme. The Path to Sustainable Farming: An Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024 sets out examples of the types of actions that we envisage paying for under the schemes, including soil management, such as the use of cover crops. I described in Monday’s debate the England Peat Action Plan, which we published in May. This sets out the Government’s long-term vision for the management, protection and restoration of our peatlands, which are crucial carbon stores, as well as—to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester—our commitment to end the use of peat in amateur horticulture by the end of this Parliament.

However, I would like to add to my remarks from Monday. The Government recognise both the strength of feeling expressed by many noble Peers from across the House and the critical importance of this issue. Soils matter of course in and of themselves, but they underpin, quite literally, the improvements that we will have to see right across the environment, as well as being critical for agriculture and, by extension, food security.

I am therefore pleased to announce that the Government will publish a soil health action plan for England. The plan will be a key plank in our efforts to halt the decline of species by 2030, as well as meeting our long-term legally binding targets on biodiversity. As we have heard from a number of noble Lords in this debate and in the debate on Monday, our soils are in a perilous position. The action plan will be crucial in driving progress across government to restore the health of our soils. We will set out further details of what the plan will contain by the end of this year.

I repeat my thanks to my noble friend Lord Caithness for having applied the pressure on this issue in the way that he did. To quote the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, campaigning works from time to time. I hope that this new announcement and my comments in our earlier debate reassure my noble friend and others in the House. I beg him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and given me support. It is always nice to have unanimous support when one moves an amendment, and on a subject such as soil it is also good to have at least three farmers supporting one. As the Minister said, the case for this amendment is very sound.

I need to answer the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. The reason I included only grades 1 and 2 is that those are the two soils most likely to be ploughed. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that grassland is equally important, but there is less erosion on grassland, particularly pasture grassland. Given the amount that Defra has to do, if it starts with grades 1 and 2, it can go on to grades 3 and 4 afterwards. However, I take the noble Lord’s point.

What the noble Lord said has been overridden by the Minister, and I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his commitment to introduce a soil action plan by the end of the year. I noted with care what my noble friend Lord Deben, my fellow ex-Minister, said on Amendment 11. He said that if it was not in the Act it would not get done. I am going to back my Minister and not my noble friend Lord Deben; I shall trust my Minister to introduce the soil action plan by the end of the year. I am sorry that it is not in the Bill, because being able to wave that bit of paper at COP 26 would be good. However, if he could write a letter confirming what he has done, or at least wave Hansard in front of people at COP 26, we might get a little bit more. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend on the Front Bench and to all noble Lords, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 18 withdrawn.

Clause 17: Policy statement on environmental principles