Soil health for sustainable agriculture

Read time: 10mins

As the industry is encouraged to move towards sustainable agriculture and sustainable food production, soil and soil health is a key area of focus.

With its links to improving nutrient cycling and water holding capacity, soil health offers significant sustainability and productivity outcomes. There are also pressing policy and business reasons to focus on soil health, including:

  • Key policy drivers from government
  • The ambitions of supply chains and agri food companies
  • Defra’s Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) and the funding it offers to improve soil health

Policy and soil health

Now we have left the EU there is focus on how the UK can set a policy agenda to drive investment in soil health. Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan set a target that, by 2030, all of England’s soils should be managed sustainably.

And last year’s Agricultural Bill is setting a new direction for government investment and public funding for landowners and farmers to deliver public goods – in which soil is a key asset.

Soils and soil carbon are also going to be key to offset the agricultural sector’s greenhouse emissions. The government’s Net Zero targets allow offsetting to cancel out these residual emissions so the industry can achieve Net Zero.

As the second-largest store of carbon on the planet, soils offer a unique solution to not just offset agricultural emissions but to potentially offer offsets to other sectors of the economy, such as transportation, aviation and oil and gas.

Supply chain pressures

Pressure to consider the sustainability of their value chains is being put on retailers and food companies by consumers, as they question where and how food is grown. Large food companies are also facing pressure from their investors to set strong, ambitious sustainability targets.

If you supply big brands, you may well be asked about your carbon footprint, your land management practices and what you’re doing with soils on your farm. It’s an enormous opportunity to demonstrate how soil fits into the sustainability agenda.

Taking steps forward

Improving soil health can offer enormous benefits including crop yield improvement, increased efficiency and marketable benefits that may attract a price premium.

But it’s estimated that UK soil health and organic matter has declined. We need to reverse this and start working on building soil health for productivity and sustainability outcomes. To do this, we need to look at the fundamentals of soil health.

There are a number of resources out there to help you measure and monitor the health of your soil. AHDB and the Great Soil Project have soil health scorecards which you can use to benchmark your farm against other farms in AHDB’s strategic and monitor farm network.

In addition, labs are now offering the opportunity to analyse your soil in terms of nutrients, organic matter, carbon and pH. They can also test microbial activity, soil structure and determine water erosion risk, combining these to give you an overall soil health index.

Funding soil health

So who will pay to deliver sustainable outcomes and public goods in food production? Environment Secretary George Eustice has said that support payments to improve soil health will be 30% higher under the new land management scheme . And Defra has now released the payment figures for soil health outcomes under the Sustainable Farming Initiative, with bonus payments for high-risk land.

But what about innovative farmers who have been focusing on soil health for decades without support from the government?

ELMs will also include landscape recovery programmes that will offer a more diverse package of funds. So, it is our hope that there will be opportunity for farmers who have been leading from the front to attract investment from government. You need to be rewarded for the great public goods you are already delivering.

Article written in association with Heather Webb, Senior Environmental Consultant, Promar International.