Defragmenting UK soils policy – the journey so far…

4896 3268 Sectormentor for Soils

Much of what we do is about empowering farmers in the field to build soil health, but of course we realise that we are all part of a bigger system and government policy can have a massive impact on the way land is farmed.

We have always admired the work of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA), bringing an independent and holistic voice to UK soils policy. Here Ursula Billington from the SSA gives us an update on the work they have been doing, what’s next for their policy work and how you can get involved if you are interested…

By Ursula Billington, Sustainable Soil Alliance, June 2019

At the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance in 2017, the UK Department for Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Secretary of State Michael Gove charged us to hold the UK government to account on soil health and we’ve been doing this to the best of our abilities ever since. The principle aim of the SSA since inception has been to improve political and public understanding and appreciation of soil in the UK – and to identify the policy mechanisms needed to begin the reversal of land degradation and restore soil health within one generation.

We knew we’d have our work cut out and have spent the last two years ricocheting between positive, fruitful conversations with government, and leaps in appreciation of the frustrating complexity of the soils issue and policies it is embedded within. We’re delighted with the success we’ve had so far, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure the sustainability of our soils for generations to come.

The SSA was born from a knowledge of the crisis affecting soils across the UK, and the globe, and a sense that the time was right, with the dreaded Brexit allowing for a significant reshaping of policy, particularly around the agricultural sector. More recently the focus on climate and ecological breakdown has proved effective in inspiring a wider audience to adopt soils as a solution to the key challenges of our times, and to push even harder for farming, land and environment policy reform.

So the need was identified and the SSA formed a partnership of high profile government, environment, farming and NGO allies to give weight to the cause and generate urgent, immediate action. Two years later, we have established close working relationships with DEFRA, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Environment Agency and the emerging Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) team. We have also inputted in to the new Agriculture and Environment Bills, the 25 Year Plan for the Environment, the new regulatory framework for farmers, the consultation on the future of Welsh farming and more. Success has been based on a slow but steady and reliable ongoing dialogue, a persistent chipping away at the rock-face of government, an endless search for the killer questions necessary to achieve our goals and, above all, – a non-partisan, relationship-based approach.

One of the first lessons we learnt – and a key one inspiring us to form a membership organisation representing all soil stakeholders across farming, land management, science, business and environment – was the siloed nature of thinking around soils. This may not come as a surprise and is certainly not unique to soils within government, but an issue we found to be both highly pertinent and damaging given the critical nature of soils to so many of our fundamental systems. Soil is the foundation of basic ecosystem function, intrinsic to food production, biodiversity and our natural environment, to water and air quality, to public health. It supplies medicines, stores carbon, prevents floods, helps regulate the earth’s temperature. It provides countless services which, if wearing a natural capital hat, have direct consequences for government spending and the Treasury. Its security is relevant to Defra, Natural England, the Environment Agency, BEIS, the Treasury, the Natural Capital Committee and more. Soil has been referred to by government as ‘the golden thread that runs through everything’ and features significantly in countless reports published by a multitude of agencies and departments. And yet the decision-making that encompasses it is fragmented. Building a joined-up strategy with soil health at its heart has therefore been a Herculean task, and we believe partnership working has been key to clarifying and supporting the flow of interdepartmental thinking. We’ve tackled this particular challenge by building ever stronger non-denominational relationships across the alliance, simultaneously working within departments to identify where their unique problems lie and help to deliver their own goals – whilst keeping in mind and working towards the wider context of interlocking aims and solutions.

As SSA Director Matt Orman recently put it:
“We have before us an opportunity almost unique to an industrialised nation to build from scratch a joined-up, fit-for-purpose national soil policy. This should reflect the scale of the problem and the political intent. We should seize it while harnessing the potential of technology and the groundswell of commitment in soil health among farmers, land managers and policy makers.

But what kind of policy is needed? All environmental governance depends upon the careful interweaving of key policy levers: regulations, education, incentivisation, monitoring and enforcement. The unique characteristics of soil such as its variety, ownership, timeframe and constituents represent a very particular challenge requiring careful consideration.”

The problem of fragmentation does not lie only within government. The SSA were not the first to identify or begin working to resolve the national soils crisis – there are a myriad of individuals, organisations and practical projects out there on a local and regional scale attempting to do just that. Breaking down silos, building relationships and attempting to unite with common leadership and purpose therefore quickly became a core approach of the SSA, in order to amplify the work of positive soils initiatives on the ground and present a united front to government. This partnership working also enabled us to fully understand the complexity of the challenge and the unique issues of the different stakeholders, as we engaged in conversations with as broad a representative of the soils community as possible. Critically listening, collating opinion and feeding back to government has become a key task of the SSA. We have convened meetings to include the widest possible spectrum of stakeholders, in part to help identify where conflicts lie and how to resolve these, building bridges and brokering to establish a level of basic agreement from which we can push forward to sustainable soils. We have not shied away from allowing like-minded and conflicting agendas to share the same space, and interesting outcomes have emerged as a result.

So where are we now? Under Gove, soil is at least now a part of government policy-making, which it hasn’t been before. There are encouraging references in the Agriculture and Environment Bills, and the 25 Year Environment Plan. But of course ministers are experts at saying the right thing, and we have yet to see concrete action on the issue. Soil has still not gained equivalent recognition and commitment as our other natural assets, water and air. We’re mindful of the need to pin down legislation, particularly at this time of tumultuous change and policy development within UK government. The temporary nature of ministerial positions and short lifespan of government can undermine progress and momentum at the best of times, so we’re working hard to firm up government commitments and ensure these are enshrined in new policy.

And we’re not afraid of change. Our fundamental aims remain the same, but within this framework we are constantly evolving, re-evaluating, responding to news, events, policies and ministerial attitudes, capitalising on new information and relationships that come our way. We aim to be agile, and we’re all too aware we may need to regroup around the change of leadership. These are interesting times, and there isn’t a blueprint for what we are attempting to achieve. But this makes it all the more important. We’re confident that strides can be made and we have hope for a step-change in soil health that will render our land, and all that stems from it, sustainable within one generation.

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For more on soils, Sustainable Soils Alliance projects and activities, visit our website.

Find more on our work with government here. Connect with us via twitter. If you’re interested in working with us please email ursula@sustainablesoils.org