New soil bill – what’s it all about?

January 29, 2020 6:10 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Last week, the government unveiled a bold agricultural strategy for the new, post-Brexit world. It moves away from the EU Common Agricultural Policy model (which, in effect, pays farmers for owning land) to focus much more intensely on environmental matters, such as wildlife protection, animal welfare and flooding.

What's in the new soil bill?

This isn’t a new bill – it’s been making its way through the legislative process for a couple of years – but it is an entirely new approach. It’s nothing short of a revolution, in fact – and a revolution that revolves around one particular aspect of farming: soil.

The bill lists soil as “an essential natural asset”, the “careful management” of which “can help to provide a whole range of public goods”. It was met with almost universal approval.

Minette Batters from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: “This bill is one of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in England for over 70 years”.

CPRE, the countryside charity, welcomed “a generational opportunity to change the way England farms for the better…This bill represents a radical rethink of farming practice and, most importantly, finally starts to recognise the need to regenerate soil – the fundamental building block of our entire agricultural system.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) patted itself on the back, describing the bill as “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years”.

Everyone else seems to be behind it too – not least because there’s a widespread dislike of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Here’s the Telegraph on the subject of the CAP, way back in 2016, arguing that Brexit provides “a wonderful opportunity to redesign one of the most ill-thought through policies of modern times.” On the ‘Remain’ side, George Monbiot pulls no punches, writing in the Guardian that CAP has been:

“among the most powerful drivers of environmental destruction in the northern hemisphere. Because payments are made only for land that’s in ‘agricultural condition’, the system creates a perverse incentive to clear wildlife habitats, even in places unsuitable for farming, to produce the empty ground that qualifies for public money. These payments have led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of hectares of magnificent wild places across Europe.”

So let’s talk about soil – and what the new bill might do for it!

Soil matters


Soil has been a sticky issue for some time – and after a spectactularly wet autumn and winter in the UK, there’s been a great deal of sticky soil (in the form of mud) around for us to contemplate. If you’re a farmer, you’re probably obsessed with the state of the soil. The rest of us might not pay too much attention, but in fact, there’s virtually nothing more important on earth than the earth (the top two inches of it, that is). It’s the basic support mechanism for our crops, our trees, our wildlife and our farm animals. Without good, healthy soil, we cannot live good, healthy lives.

Lady Eve Balfour, a founder of the Soil Association, famously remarked: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”. As the Association points out, our soil holds the water and nutrients we need for life – and 95% of the food we eat comes from it. (If you’ve ever wondered why an organisation better known for its commitment to organic food is called the Soil Association, well, there’s your answer.)

Healthy soil is full of organic matter (decomposing plant and animal residues, cells and tissues of organisms, and substances synthesized by these organisms). It’s wonderfully fertile, allowing crops, plants and trees to grow to their fullest potential, rich in nutrients for the humans and animals that rely on them. It also has good structure – it’s able to hold water (lessening flooding risks and helping in times of drought) and retain nutrients. And it stores carbon effectively, drawing this element into it and acting as a ‘carbon sink’. There’s three times more carbon held in soil than in the atmosphere, meaning that soil has a major role to play in combating climate change.

But soil is at risk. According to the Soil Association, 40% of all soils in the world are now “seriously degraded” and intensive farming and deforestation in this country (it’s not just something that affects the Amazon) has seen our own soil health plummet.

How’s the soil revolution going to work?

The idea of the new bill is to reward farmers who protect and improve the soil. This will be done through financial incentives, for example, for soil monitoring programmes and research into soil health, and direct rewards for farmers who focus on issues like clean air and water, improving flood protection, protecting wildlife, implementing higher animal welfare standards and providing better access to the countryside. None of this will happen immediately (which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the Brexit process), but will be phased in over the course of seven years.

The Soil Association will be watching carefully to see just how the government achieves this. That body has long argued that organic farming is the answer to environmental issues – but it appears to be taking a fairly pragmatic approach towards the new bill. Our blog Save our soil (and our planet) with the Soil Association outlines some of the ways in which the Soil Association has previously argued for soil protection, such as avoiding synthetic or petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers and using crop rotation to build fertility. The ideas set out by the Association in that blog are likely to inform any new policies, even if there’s little chance of organic farming becoming compulsory in the UK.

Acting for the future

Whatever your views on Brexit, it’s clear that this bill represents a chance to mould things for the better, for all of us. In or out of the EU, we need to leave healthy soil for future generations.

If you’re not a farmer, but wondering what you might be able to do yourself, then check out our blog here Get Your Hands Dirty – It’s World Soil Day!  for some smaller-scale ideas.

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This post was written by Yzanne

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