More action required to protect UK soil health

02 June 2016

The Government’s ambition to manage the UK’s soil sustainably by 2030 will not be met unless further action is taken, the Environmental Audit Committee has warned in a report published today on the health of UK soil. Failing to prevent soil degradation could lead to increased flood risk, lower food security, and greater carbon emissions.

Chair's comment

Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Mary Creagh MP, said:

"Soil is a Cinderella environmental issue. It doesn’t receive as much attention as air pollution, water quality or climate change. But, whether we realise it or not, society relies on healthy soil for the food we eat, for flood prevention, and for storing carbon. The Government says it wants our soil to be managed sustainably by 2030, but there is no evidence that it is putting in place the policies to make this happen."

Around 300,000 hectares of UK soil are thought to be contaminated with toxic elements – such as cadmium, arsenic and lead - as a result of the UK's industrial past, but the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has withdrawn capital grant funding for local authorities to clean up this contamination.

The inquiry heard that without this funding councils are now less able and less likely to proactively investigate potential contamination – despite the potential health threat this poses.  

Relationship between soil contamination and poor health

Untreated contamination may harm public health and water quality. Some research has found a statistically significant relationship between soil contamination and poor health.

Defra appears complacent about the withdrawal of capital grant funding for contaminated land remediation, and risks undermining councils' ability to meet their statutory duties, according to the MPs. They are also calling on Defra to set new funding for contaminated land remediation at the level of the old scheme.

Mary Creagh MP said:

"Our industrial heritage means that hundreds of thousands of sites across the country are contaminated by chemicals, heavy metals, tar, asbestos and landfill. Often materials were disposed of on site and buildings demolished without the environmental safety regulations we take for granted today.

Defra's complacent decision to withdraw contaminated land grants has undermined the ability of councils to identify and clean up polluted brownfield sites not dealt with through the planning system. This presents a real danger that contaminated sites are being left unidentified with consequential public health impacts.

Relying on the planning system to clean up contaminated land may be fine in areas with high land values, but it means that contamination in poorer areas will go untreated. Councils simply do not have the resources to investigate which sites are contaminated. Ministers must rethink their decision to phase out contamination clean up grants."

Soil degradation and climate change 

Soil is a massive carbon sink, storing three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Soil degradation also leads to increased carbon emissions and could speed up climate change. The UK's arable soils have seen a worrying decline in carbon levels since 1978, with widespread and ongoing decline in peat soil carbon.

The Government must set out specific, measurable and time-limited plans to increase the amount of carbon retained in soil, to help us meet the plans it signed up to at the Paris climate summit. The Government should also take tough action to tackle land use practices which degrade peat, such as the burning of blanket bogs.

Mary Creagh MP said:

"Soil degradation could mean that some of our most productive agricultural land becomes unprofitable within a generation. Every tonne of carbon we can retain in soil will help us meet our carbon budgets and slow climate change. The government wants to see all soils managed sustainably by 2030, but their current actions will not be enough to reach that goal."

Agricultural soil 

The Government relies on rules linked to farm subsidy payments to regulate agricultural soil health. But the MPs warn that these rules are too weak, too loosely enforced, and focus only on preventing further damage to soil rather than encouraging restoration and improvement.

Rules with greater scope, force and ambition are required in order to meet the Government's stated goal to manage soils sustainably by 2030.

Monitoring soil health

Monitoring changes in soil health over time is key to developing effective policy. Defra's current ad hoc approach to conducting surveys of soil health is inadequate. The Government should introduce a rolling national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health to ensure that we have adequate information about the state of the nation's soil.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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