Whether it is at on-farm or national level, the testing and regular monitoring of soil over time is critical for understanding its health and its ability to carry out specific functions.
- For a land manager it is important for understanding what functions their soil is best placed to deliver, whether their soils are improving or degrading and the impact their interventions are having.
- At a national level it is important to understand the overall health of a country’s soils, the impact of policies over time, and to evaluate progress against domestic and international targets.
Despite this, and despite considerable scientific consensus around the connection between soil quality indicators and soil functions, there is no ‘official’, authoritative or agreed guidance about the critical soil indicators, the thresholds for specific soils or the methods land managers should be using to measure them.
Similarly, there is currently no agreement about the indicators or the underlying metrics that underpin the government’s own soils target – namely the vision to achieve ‘sustainably managed soils’ by 2030 (England). This vision was introduced in 2009 and is now embedded in the 25 Year Plan for the Environment.
Critically, there is very little money invested in nationwide soils monitoring when compared with other critical environmental indicators. Three national monitoring reports have been undertaken over the last two decades: The National Soils Inventory (Cranfield, England and Wales), The Scottish NSI (James Hutton Institute), and the Countryside Survey (UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology, GB) – however soils monitoring has received no new investment since 2008.
A Freedom of Information request by the SSA in 2020 revealed that just 0.41% of the money invested by the government in environmental monitoring goes on examining the soil.
The development of national farm support schemes and the Environment Bill (England) means that there is clear policy momentum behind the establishment of formal indicators and targets for both on-farm and national monitoring schemes and for these two approaches to be aligned so that data collected on-farm can inform the nationwide picture. Renewed interest in soil measurement and monitoring will generate a baseline understanding of both nationwide and on-farm soil health and herald a new era of soils appreciation.
At the SSA, we call for the following:
- Clear direction by national governments about the critical soil health indicators for use on farm to establish soil health, specific for different soil types and land uses.
- For these indicators to be embedded in future guidance, farm support and regulations alongside advice about the tools and techniques to use, including emerging technologies.
- The development by the government (England) of a healthy soils indicator as part of the 25 Year Plan Outcome Indicator Framework which will feed into the development of an evidence base that could inform a long-term soil target and our understanding of soil health, and for equivalent steps to be taken by the devolved administrations.
- Investment in nationwide soil monitoring capable of delivering an accurate and comprehensive picture of the state of our soils. This should bring soil health investment into line with that provided to equivalent environmental indicators.