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Q You know that in the new Bill, compared to the one in the previous Parliament, we have added an explicit purpose around soil quality. Will you describe for us how best to measure soil quality or soil health? What kind of management interventions should we encourage under the Bill’s provisions?
Unsurprisingly, we were delighted to see that addition, which we thought was a grave omission last time round. There was a rather arcane debate around whether soil health was a private or a public good. What matters is that we achieve better soils, because we know that there is a soils crisis. Indeed, Michael Gove highlighted that in some of his speeches.
The other problem, as you allude to, Minister, is that soil is highly geographically variable and contains many different parameters, from organic matter in terms of the ability to sequester carbon to soil biodiversity, productive capability and the rest of it. That challenge has made it very difficult to set standard provisions around soils for farmers to follow. I suspect that that side of it will probably be best developed through the 25-year plan in the Environment Bill, so in a sense the Agriculture Bill is the place where the tools for farmers to improve their soils can be placed, and where the provisions around what sorts of soils we need, and where, will need a lot of research and geographical specificity. Farmers will need assistance to understand their soils, so a top-down approach to the same soils everywhere is probably not the right way to go.
One exception is that the concept of a steady increase in the carbon content of soils seems to be widely accepted. I think the UK is in the “4 per 1000” club on this, which is around a steady percentage increase of organic matter in soils. That will be a useful single aspiration for farmers and policy makers to coalesce around.
Q Soils have been around for a very long time and the human race has worked out how to grow crops on them, so I never understand why people say we need huge amounts of research when we know how soil works. Soil science is not new.
The lack of knowledge should not be used as an excuse to not do anything. I agree with you that far. In terms of understanding at the field level what a particular farmer needs to do, I do not think I agree that that is always obvious. You might have shared the same train journey that I had today from Bristol. Going through Wiltshire and looking at the waterlogged soil-laden water lying on the fields, so that it is pouring into the River Avon at the moment, is a signal to me. That is not necessarily the fault of the farmer, but there is a gap between academic understanding of what soils should be like and what is happening in practice in the fields. There is a huge need for farmers to better understand what is appropriate on their farms. That will involve a fair bit of Government investment to help them in that process.
Q Some suggested as long ago as the 1930s—such as Albert Howard, who was seen by many as the father of the organics movement—that humus in soil is the key criterion to target, because that links to mycorrhizal activity and soil health more generally, carbon in the soils and the growth of various micro-organisms. Would you subscribe to that?
Yes. The Soil Association is rooted in the philosophy that the essence of successful farming lies in the soil. There has been a welcome resurgence of interest in soil over the last few years. It is not an exclusive club; there are things such as minimum tillage, which is not necessarily an organic philosophy. A lot of farmers are increasingly focused on soil as the central organising principle of productivity, pest resistance, carbon sequestration and biodiversity, but that recognition still has a long way to go. I do not think organic is the only way in which that can be achieved, but it is one simple codified way of farming that we know builds on that understanding of soil and organic matter in soil.
Q If we tried to return to a general principle of more sustainable farming practices and husbandry, but recognising that the majority of farmers will probably want to stop short of becoming fully organic, could certain things be borrowed from organic production—traditional approaches to farm husbandry that could be deployed in more conventional farms? Or is it your view that nothing works unless you go the whole way to be fully organic?
No, I would not say that. That is why there is increasing use of the term “agroecology”, to suggest that there is a more inclusive approach to sustainable farming. Organic is a great codified way of doing that and guaranteeing to the farmer and the consumer that the farmer is following a particular practice, but agroecology is wider in the sense that it incorporates practices such as mixed farming, where there is a mixture, or ruminant livestock and arable so there is a natural fertility cycle. It incorporates a focus on reducing pesticides—it would be fantastic in the Agriculture Bill to have some target for the reduction of pesticides as an aspiration—and a focus on leguminous plants, to increase nitrogen naturally, to avoid the use of artificial nitrogen. We are going to have to wean ourselves off artificial nitrogen at some point if we are to meet our carbon targets, because we have not found an alternative way to make it. All those practices can be incorporated into conventional farming systems.
Q Since the earlier iteration of the Agriculture Bill, there has been wide acknowledgment that we face a climate crisis. As part of that, although clearly different in different parts of the country, there is a crisis around our soil, is there not? Could you say a little about how intense that is?
There is a soils crisis, which is expressed in a number of different ways. It is probably slightly alarmist to talk about a certain number of years of soils left, which is quite graphic and gets people engaged in the topic, but that will be different in different places. Soil can regenerate, so we should not look at it as a one-way trajectory of decline; we know ways in which soil can be recovered. The decline in organic matter in soil is a key dimension of that crisis.
The other big element of soil health that has been neglected by the environmental side as much as by the farming side, is biodiversity in soil. I assume that is as simple as the fact that it is below the ground, and therefore you do not see it. I heard an interesting statistic the other day: in a typical sheep field, the weight of creatures underneath the field far exceeds that of the animals on the surface, whether as simple as worms or down to bacterial and fungi. The problem is that, because we do not see it, it is not that immediately obvious to us. It becomes obvious through things such as feeding birds in the winter—the number of lapwings on the fields. If there are no invertebrates in the fields, there will not be birds above them. Getting back to a sense of the biodiversity of soil will be a good way to re-engage with it.
Q I guess many of us would say that there is a need for urgency, but farmers find themselves caught in the middle, don’t they? There is pressure to change—the Bill is part of that change—but is there not a danger that if we have food imported to lower standards, that will put farmers under even more economic pressure?
I absolutely agree with the latter point. We may come on to the issue of trade equality later in the discussion, I imagine. There is simply no point in us exporting our production by forcing up standards here when we are importing products that are produced to low environmental and climate-change standards from other places. We urgently need to find a way to address that, because the tsunami of change that is about to hit farming in this country will not be able to withstand that, so we have to find a way of addressing that issue.
I do not think that should be used as an excuse for not starting to tackle some of these big crises, such as the soil crisis. It would be useful in the Bill, for example, for the food security provision to talk about things such as soil as part of food security. At the minute, it is very focused on economic factors. If we do not sustain the simple biological and physical nature of farming over this period, we will not have food security. That is one place where it would be useful to put this in the Bill.
I do not think anyone has found a simple solution to this, other than a protectionist model, which is what we are trying to get away from. The most interesting example I have heard is talk from Dieter Helm at the Natural Capital Committee about some kind of carbon border adjustment. It would seem ridiculous for us to import products from countries that are not signed up to the Paris treaty and may be subsidising fossil fuels for their farmers in order that they can produce cheaply, and for those products to be on the market in this country, going against products that properly factor in the carbon price. It is not going to be easy to get around, but we cannot duck it. A number of groups have put forward potential amendments to the Bill to try to address some of that, and that also needs to be reflected in the trade Bills. Just ignoring it, as is being done at the minute, is not satisfactory for our farmers or our environment.
Q I represent the waterlogged Wiltshire farms that you passed today. Given your point about different soils in different places, are you confident that, in the emerging policy about public good payments, we are getting the balance right between farming practices and outcomes? The detail is not all there yet, but are you concerned about getting that balance right?
I think the Bill is a good step, in terms of providing the toolkit to give farmers the financial assistance to provide some of those public goods. The environmental land management scheme seems to have got quite bogged down over the past couple of years because it has been trying to get round this issue of working to more outcome-focused schemes, rather than just prescriptions for farmers, but there is a reason why we ended up doing prescriptions, although they are very frustrating for farmers to work to, because it is a list of rules that you have to follow and that is not a very creative way of doing things. The reason we do that is that you can audit them and specify them, even if it is a bit rough and ready, whereas saying to a farmer, “We would like to see 10 pairs of skylarks on your land. You decide how you do it,” is quite open-ended and not that helpful to the farmer. Hopefully, ELMS is the place where we will find a way of reconciling those two conflicting priorities.
Where to start? Could you say a bit more about the whole-farm systems approach and the concern that the Bill might lead to farmers cherry-picking some of the public goods, but not to a transformation of farming, as would be possible if we were to go for a more holistic approachQ ?
One reason I joined the Soil Association —I was previously working at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—was the sense that you can do quite a lot for particular things, such as bird numbers on farms, without affecting the underlying sustainability of farming operations. I do not think the Bill deliberately plays into that, but it could be an unintentional consequence. There is a whole series of public goods that a farmer could choose to provide, but—particularly if we are going to lose things such as cross-compliance now, which is the basic way to encourage a farmer to look across the whole farm—there is a considerable danger that we will just focus on the easy or obvious bits, such as doing a flower margin or some skylark plots on a farm, and not really think about why the ecological operation of a farm is not satisfactory.
At the moment, there are two distinct dangers. First, some farms might opt into the public goods system while other farms will decide to farm to the market, especially if they are competing with foreign imports produced to lower standards. Secondly, even on individual farms, a farmer might be tempted to look for a particular thing that can be done that will be good for the environment, but neglect what is happening on the rest of the farm, for example the state of the soil across the whole farm. The whole-farm approach should be at the centre of the Agriculture Bill, but it is not at the moment.
Q Meeting net zero is a public good, looking at climate mitigation and adaptation. Do you feel the Bill could be stronger on that? My concern is that while in a sector like transport it is quite easy to make big policy moves that shift us, say, to electric vehicles, because there is only a small number of car companies, in agriculture there are lots of different types of farmers with a large geographical spread. How do you get them all working towards that net zero goal, and could the Bill be a mechanism to do that more effectively? I have not heard much from the National Farmers Union about the road map for getting there.
It is fantastic that the NFU has taken the position of committing to an early net zero target for the agriculture and land use sector. That has shifted the debate enormously. Establishing the route map by which you do that is quite difficult. I am not entirely sure that a net zero clause in the Bill is the right way to go about it.
In several sectors—such as transport and energy generation—we have a clear idea about what that route map needs to be. Land use will be much more complicated. We do not know all the answers yet—for example, in the current argument about red meat, we are veering a different way each month. Setting a clear trajectory in farming to net zero in law could be counter-productive. The easiest way for us to go net zero in terms of land use in the UK is to stop farming and plant trees everywhere and import food off our balance sheet. That would be madness, but it could be an inadvertent consequence if we get the wrong sort of legal fix into law. I think the Bill could be more explicit about net zero and the need to achieve it, but we need to be careful about the way in which we phrase that.
Q Conversion to organic farming is quite an expensive process, because during that conversion period one cannot sell organic products. Do you think there should be more incentives for farmers to switch to organic production and, if so, how can we ensure that we do not flood the market with organic food and therefore undermine the whole economic basis for organic farming?
That is a well-made point. In food, demand and production need to be balanced. That is true not only of organic produce; it is a general point.
One key point is that it would be helpful if the Bill recognised the specific contribution that organic farming can make against a whole range of public goods. Rather than inventing a complicated system in parallel with organics—for example, saying, “If a farm satisfies the carbon criteria, the biodiversity criteria, the rotations and the rest of it, then we will make a payment”—let us just cut to the chase and say that it makes sense for there to be some kind of organic maintenance payment to recognise additional public goods that are there but cannot be recovered through the market. I think that would in some sense help with the conversion issue, because if farmers are clear that if they move to an organic model they will be rewarded, both by the market and for the public goods that they provide in the longer term, then that will give them that level of certainty.
Regarding conversion, you are right—I think there needs to be caution around doing that, because in the past we have had examples of where there has been over-conversion to organic ahead of the market being ready to be there. So I think the focus on some sort of organic maintenance payment in ELMS is absolutely vital.
There is a role for help with conversion, but it may not be in terms of straightforward payments during that period. It may be through things like the ancillary productivity payments or some of these other issues that are acting as a barrier to conversion. For example, bringing livestock back on to arable farms will be quite a difficult operation, and most people who convert to organic would need to do that if they are an arable farm. So help with the process of establishing those things might be the way that one could assist in that process.
AsQ you know, clause 1 provides financial assistance for protecting and improving the quality of soil and, as you mentioned earlier, soil is highly variable and it is difficult to set the standards equally across all the farmers. You mentioned something about tools for farmers—being given specifically, I guess, for the 25 years that you mentioned. Are there any specific measures that you would like to see mentioned in relation to soil health?
At the end of the day, there will have to be some sort of whole-farm planning process. I am sure the Minister has thoughts about this: there is an aspiration to reduce our transaction costs, around the amount of advice and so on that schemes involve. I think there is a limit to how far that can go, so at the end of the day I suspect that any farmer who is receiving substantial public good payments will need to have some kind of system of working with an adviser around a whole-farm plan, which will enable them to put the measures into place, particularly for something like soil.
There are general measures that are great for wildlife and the environment, like having flower margins around fields, having rough grass margins and the rest of it; they will be useful anywhere. With something like soil, I cannot really see how that can be done without the support of an agronomist, or a specialist, or someone helping the farmer and working on the nature of the soil on that particular farm. That need not be done by Government advisers; it could be done by certifiers, or private suppliers and so on. But without that level of support being built into the system, it is quite hard to see how farmers will be able to make the transition that they might want to make on their farm to things like sustainable soil management practices.
Mr Morgan, in your written submissions you criticised the Bill as it is currently drafted for not having clear targets for soil health. I represent the Derbyshire Dales area, which has a massive variation of soil qualities from the flats to the higher land. How can you possibly fairly have targets, and how would you measure them, to make sure that those of my farmers who put a lot of effort in to improve the soil, but who will get a lesser result because of the nature of the soil they have, can be fairly rewarded for providing a public good improvement?Q
I am quite pragmatic about where those targets should lie and if it is not in the Agriculture Bill, there are other places; I have already alluded to the potential for both the Environment Bill and the 25-year plan to be the place where those targets and metrics could reside. It is disappointing that at the moment the Environment Bill does not have a soil chapter, because it would seem to me logical for that to be the place where, say, a target for increasing organic matter in soils at a national level would reside.
Regarding the targets for an individual farm, clearly it would not be sensible for those to be iterated in this Bill, because they might have to be done farm by farm. However, some provision for making sure that farmers are clear what they are working to on the soils on their farm over a particular period will be vital. I do not know whether some provision can be made in the Bill for there to be that level of assessment before public good payments are made on a particular farm, for example, because you are right: unless the farmer is clear about their current resource or what the expectation is about where they will be going, it is going to be quite—and this may be one of the reasons why soils were not previously itemised in the Bill, because of this precise problem about that geographical specificity.
Q That would be a huge piece of work, would it not—like a national survey of each individual farm. If you want to set targets as you suggest, are you saying that that is realistically what the Government have to look at? Can there be a more pragmatic approach?
I think a soil organic matter target nationally is realistic. I think there is a fair consensus that increasing organic matter in soil ticks so many boxes that that is something that would be useful. That does not necessarily help the individual farmer to know what needs to be done on their farm. There is a good national soil survey, so there is good spatial information about soils that we could be using as part of this process, so it does not all have to be done from a base of no knowledge.
Q I just wanted to come in on this point about targets. I know they are the tool that people often reach for—they say we should just have some statutory target—but you said yourself at the beginning that it varies considerably from soil to soil, it is hard to measure these things, and an enormous amount of research is needed. I have sometimes been told it will probably take eight years to do that sort of research.
Given the complexity of the issue, is there not a danger that if you are waiting to try to identify the target, you end up effectively delaying action—the worst of all worlds? Does it perhaps matter less that there is some sort of prescribed target, and more that you encourage and incentivise good soil husbandry from year one as best you can with the knowledge that you have? You can measure trends. You can get a sense of whether the trends that matter are moving in the right direction from the interventions you are doing. Is not that perhaps a better way to approach these things than some kind of prescriptive target?
I think you are right, in the sense that the best must not be the enemy of the good, and there is plenty that can be done on soils tomorrow. I do not think I agree that the absence of a target is something that we should be content with in the long term, particularly at the Government level. Targets have been useful in focusing the attention of policy makers on results. The farmland bird recovery target, although the bane of many people’s life, was useful in terms of focusing attention on what could be done to reverse the decline of farmland birds.
I think national targets around soils would be helpful in terms of focusing and attracting funding. Ultimately the Treasury is going to come and say, “I can see you are doing lots of interesting things on your farms; what, actually, are you benefiting, in terms of the natural capital account for the country?” Unless we can go back to the Treasury and say, “This investment of £2 billion or £3 billion has achieved the following things over this period,” I suspect the money will dry up pretty quickly.
Q There was another area of the Bill that I wanted to ask your view on. It is further on—there is the clause relating to organic, principally marketing, standards. That is, in essence, the primary powers that we would need to amend the organics regime that we have inherited from the EU and that itself is about to change.
Are you content with the revised organics regime that we are about to inherit from the EU, as it stands, or would you be interested in us using these powers to make specific changes that might make the future UK organics regime work better?
That is a little bit off my area, so I will not speculate too much. The Soil Association is only one part of a very broad organic movement, so there are a number of players who, I think, will want to come back. I think the general feeling was that the provisions in the Bill provide the right enabling starting point for creating a domestic structure around organic regulation.
The one concern that I have heard expressed is that, given we have quite a collaborative model for developing organic standards and lots of players in this country, building that level of engagement with the various players and consultation into that process will be important. At the European level, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, or IFOAM, has been involved in the ongoing development of organic regulation. We will clearly need to have something similar at a domestic level to ensure that everyone, from the farmers to the certifiers to consumers, has a stake in the development of the regime.
Q Two questions: first, in some of your evidence you have suggested that there should be a public health aim within the Bill, and I wondered whether you could tell us a little more about how you think that might work. Secondly— you have touched on this a bit in some of your contribution—who do you think is best-placed and qualified to negotiate and administer the new environmental land management schemes? Are there any potential conflicts of interest in that set-up?
Taking the first point, it does feel that there is still a gap in the policy and legislative architecture in agriculture. We have “Health and Harmony”, which sets out a good, new, broad trajectory for agriculture, and we have quite a technical, nitty-gritty enabling Bill here in terms of saying, “Here are the tools that can be deployed to achieve things.” At the moment there is not anything knitting all that together to say, “What are food and farming for? Do we have any sense of what the right model might be?” I suspect that is perhaps a bit of a legacy from having had the CAP, which was a prescriptive and sometimes flawed model of European farming. We have almost moved away from that to being afraid to say we have any preferences at all. We have a series of tools and a broad aspiration that farming should be good for the environment, and then the market does the rest.
The reason for putting down a marker on public health was to say that food and farming are not just about a commercial transaction; it is of huge national importance whether people have secure and healthy food supplies and access to the right sort of food and whether the farmer is able to get a just return from the market. Some of those things are touched on in the Bill, but it almost feels like there needs to be something right at the front of the Bill to say what all this is for, as opposed to, “What should we pay farmers for and how?” It feels a bit too fast. That does not necessarily have to come in the Bill, but it has to come somewhere, to our mind. Again, that is where we would say that a presumption in favour of a move to a more agroecological way of thinking about farming probably would sit. Equally, it is the place where the national food strategy would fit in to say that food is more than just a market transaction for consumers.
Q On that point, you made a reference earlier to the need for advisers. You will be aware that the concept behind the future policy is that there will be an individual agronomist—possibly from the private sector, possibly from groups, perhaps even from your group or the Wildlife Trusts—who would be accredited by the Government to help farmers put schemes together and to walk to the farm and sit down around the kitchen table to do that. I think I am right in saying that the Soil Association already accredits organic producers and growers, probably under a similar model. I wondered if you might explain how that process works. How many clients—for want of a better term—can an accredited Soil Association adviser look after in a typical year?
I should first say that other certifiers are available—for example, our colleagues in Organic Farmers and Growers. It is a competitive market. I am not from the certification side of the organisation and so I will follow up with written evidence on that point, if that is acceptable.