Parliamentarians hear soil evidence

An All Party Parliamentary inquiry into safeguarding Britain's soils has heard evidence from Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, as well as emeritus professor of soil science at Cranfield University, Mark Kibblewhite, and Robert Askew, an independent consultant on agricultural land classification.

Two weeks ago, the inquiry also heard evidence from the Soil Association and the NFU.

The inquiry has been convened by MPs and Peers of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, and is investigating the causes and solutions to the serious issue of soil loss and degradation in the UK, and the risks posed to food security, the climate and biodiversity.

Lord Deben, who was the UK’s longest ever serving Minster of Agriculture, issued stark warnings as to the consequences of continued inaction by government, saying that the threat to soils is ‘urgent and serious, and the evidence is that it will become even more so’.  He also said that the Government’s response to the crisis facing soils was ‘not enough’ and that ‘we have allowed the urban majority to underplay and underrate the importance of agriculture’.

It is estimated the UK loses some two million tonnes of topsoil each year to erosion, which Professor Mark Kibblewhite said costs England and Wales £1.2 billion a year. Some 20 per cent of these costs fall directly on the agricultural industry, with 80 per cent falling on the rest of society – this includes £200 million in increased flood risks.

The inquiry heard that poor farming practices and the absence of an effective advisory service were partly to blame for the mismanagement and the damage caused to agricultural soils.

Simon Hoare, MP for North Dorset, questioned the sustainability of growing crops as biomass for renewable energy, such as anaerobic digestion. Lord Deben, speaking on behalf of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said that the CCC was concerned about this practice, and had been tough on growing crops for biomass, saying ‘It is not of itself sustainable in large measure’ and that there is a lot of biomass which has ‘no carbon saving at all’. Maize is a crop, commonly grown as biomass, which has been roundly criticised for the particular damage it causes to soil. Lord Deben remarked that ‘maize can be grown badly and in the wrong places’, and criticised inadequate soil protection measures introduced by the cross-compliance rules under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

The inquiry will conclude in January with a final session examining the measures that are being taken to protect soils in developing countries, particularly in the context of climate change. The All Party Group will then publish a report making recommendations for government action to safeguard our soils.


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