Soil was the topic of the day when politicians, NGOs, businesses academics and other stakeholders convened in Portcullis House at an event hosted by Rebecca Pow MP and the Sustainable Soils Alliance to discuss the government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

During the event the measurement, monitoring and economics of soils were discussed as well as the steps needed to unlock the innovation, collaboration and investment needed by farmers and others to manage them sustainably for the next generation and beyond.

Observations and conclusions from the event are as follows:

1. Soil is high on the government agenda

The contribution of Farming Minister George Eustice at the event and Secretary of State Michael Gove's speech at the October launch shows the government’s commitment to the soils issue. Further engagement from MPs at the event confirmed Rebecca Pow MP’s observations that, ‘Soil might not be sexy, but it’s certainly under the spotlight now’.

2. Farmers value their soil

George Eustice described the tension between farmers and NGO as a ‘false antagonism’, adding that everyone understands the value of healthy soils. He laid out a vision of sustainable farming that combined traditional methods of soil husbandry with the best science and technology available. The growing evidence of farmer interest in their soil was highlighted by Vicki Hird (Sustain) and by Mark Pope (NFU) who have witnessed a ‘revolution’ in soil awareness and the increased adoption of techniques like minimum tillage and cover cropping.

3. Farmers face challenges

Mark Pope called for a flexible, rather than one size fits all, policy approach to soil management. This was re-enforced by Richard Laverick (AHDB) when explaining that there were approximately 750 different soil types. It is the complexity of both the biology and the chemistry of soils that leads to confusion among farmers and where investment in education is needed. Ben Raskin (Soil Association) pointed to other root causes of soil mismanagement by farmers including tight margins that encourage specialisation over diversity, short tenancies that dis-incentivise investment and a knowledge gap between what farmers want to achieve and how to achieve it.

4. Financial tools for incentivising change

Guy Thompson (EnTrade, Wessex Water) used the example of his company’s Poole Harbour water catchment scheme to demonstrate the impact of a market-based approach to soil management, giving farmers access to private and public finance in exchange for eco-system services such as nitrate savings. Mark Pope also favoured a business to business approach that complements commercial and government incentives, alongside existing agri-environment schemes and grants for techniques such as minimum tillage.

5. Power of the markets needs to be unleashed

Soil is – or could be - big business. Craig Sams (Carbon Gold) explained that a commodity market for certified carbon could exceed a trillion pounds per year and suggested financially rewarding farmers for its sequestration. Andrew Voysey (Institute for Sustainable Leadership) called for a full systems map demonstrating how money and soil interface, making use of big data and public science to inform investor risk analysis and even a green bank or sovereign green bond to showcase commercial opportunities from investing in soil.

6. Is a Soil Act the answer?

Philip Lymbery (Compassion in World Farming) commended the 25 Year Plan’s intention but questioned if it had teeth. He called for a nationwide soil recovery programme underpinned by legislation, while Tony Juniper (WWF) also called for a new Act of Parliament, legislating soil restoration in a similar manner to air and water quality. Zac Goldsmith MP said he was ‘agitating’ for such an Act.

7. Monitoring

Dr Liz Stockdale (NIAB) called for a double pronged approach; one that engages individual farmers and encourages them to monitor physical condition and organic matter alongside their existing nutrient management indicators and another, government-led approach providing a statistically robust, nationwide picture. Ben Raskin emphasised that the tools and knowledge needed to start monitoring were already in place, on which point Dr Kevin Austin (Environment Agency) highlighted the use of drones and social media already in farm monitoring and communication.

8. Innovation and data

Peter Head (Ecological Sequestration Trust) pointed to the important role of scientific innovation and major advances in available soil data thanks to satellites, sensors and mobile phones as well as in modelling and simulation techniques. Mark Pope also highlighted the importance of good data for farmers both in measuring environmental progress and productivity levels.

9. Collaboration

In highlighting the importance of collaboration, Peter Head addressed the lack of connection between science, decision making, agriculture and community, a point echoed by Vicki Hird. She called for increased funding to support farmer-to-farmer interaction, to link farmers with business advice and with available research funds.

10. The supply chain

Dr Austin called for an increased role for the whole supply chain in the issue of soils, especially retailers and processors who needed to reflect the importance of soil in their assurance schemes. Duncan Rawson (EFFP) added that food companies have a key role and the resources as buyers to drive change. Vicki Hird called for greater supply chain transparency and regulation and for an extension of the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator to enforce it.

11. The general public

Duncan Rawson pointed out that the work food companies were doing had as much to do with supply chain integrity, their brand value in the eyes of the public. Sue Pritchard (RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission) said that it was hard for politicians to be bold on any initiative if they don’t know if they were bringing people with them. This was a core part of the rationale for the Commission’s work to change behaviours among farmers, and simultaneously explain to citizens why this matters.

12. Final call to arms

The event’s ‘call to arms’ came from Tim Smit (Eden Project) who urged attendees to rise above their vested interests and to start to act as citizens not consumers with vision of stewardship with a duty to the future.