How ELM will support soil health
At the Cereals conference 2021, Secretary of State George Eustice announced the future plans for the launch of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) next year. The announcement reflected a desire to place soil health at the heart of their future farming policy, known as Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Of the three SFI standards proposed by the Government, two directly aim at restoring soils; the Arable and horticultural soils standard and the Improved grassland soils standard. Within those two standards, the proposed funding is as follows;
Improved grassland soils (per hectare):
- introductory: £26
- intermediate: £44
- advanced: £70
Arable and horticultural soils (per hectare):
- introductory: £26
- intermediate: £41
- advanced: £60
This move reflects a growing awareness within Government of the intrinsic value of soil health. Back in 2017, Eustice himself promised that UK’s soils would be “at the heart” of the UK’s new agricultural policy and highlighted the importance of soil. Since then, Defra has worked to ensure that the Environmental Land Management scheme will be designed to support farmers to adopt methods that protect and restore soil health, such as cover-cropping and min-till methods. This commitment to remedying soil erosion and degradation led to it being publicly explicitly listed within the Agriculture Act as a “public good”, alongside clean air and clean water.
The recognition of the importance of soils to agriculture system is long over-due. Healthy soils are essential for food security. Yet almost a third of the world’s arable soils have been lost to erosion and pollution over the last 40 years. In the UK, we lose an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil each year, costing around £45 million per year, of which £9 million is in lost production and reduced yields, reducing the profitability of UK farms.
In the past, soil health might not have been considered to meet the definition of a “public good”, and therefore could have been excluded from Government funding. In fact, its rumoured that George Eustice originally had his doubts as to whether it met the definition. Defined as being non-rivalrous and non-excludable, many believed that soil didn’t count. The logic held that farmers had a personal interest in improving soil health to increase their yields, which they would ultimately benefit from financially, making it rivalrous, and that improving the soil health of their field did nothing to improve the health of their neighbour’s field, making it excludable.
However, this thinking has been overtaken by the imperative of climate change. Soils can help to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions by acting as a carbon store. Globally, the soil carbon store is estimated to be 2.3 times greater than the carbon in atmospheric CO2 and 3.5 times greater than the carbon in all living terrestrial plants. Within soil carbon, grassland soils are a major store and hold about 34% of the global terrestrial carbon. Improving soil health is therefore a critical way to tackle climate change. Increasing soil organic matter (and by extension soil carbon) can help us to meet our net zero targets, something that the UK Government is keen to deliver against.
However, soil health provides further benefit to climate change adaptation. Increasing the organic matter within degraded UK soils would provide better defence against flooding by reducing run-off and increasing the water holding capacity of the ground. This will prove essential in the coming years as we face increased frequency of extreme weather events (such as flash flooding) due to climate change. There is now a significant body of evidence to show that sustainable farming practices perform significantly better against a range of other soil health indicators, such as resilience against flooding and drought. By improving soil health upstream, the risk of downstream flooding can be reduced, protecting communities and reducing mitigation costs.
As these two standards within the SFI are rolled out, there will surely be further conversation about how ELM can support soil health. Wilson Wraight will be following these conversations closely so that we are best placed to advise our clients about future support. If you are interested in learning more about soil health subsidies and how it might benefit your business, please get in touch.