Soil Health report targets maize for AD
A report from the House of Commons’ cross party Environmental Audit Select Committee highlights the need to raise soil organic matter levels in order to maintain food output and store carbon to mitigate climate change. It also raises concern over the increase in the maize area to feed the growing Anaerobic Digestion (AD) industry.
The report, Soil Health, concludes that the long term decline in soil organic matter levels must be reversed. “Soil is crucial to society. Neglecting soil health could have dire consequences for food security, climate change, and public health,” it concludes. At the same time the MPs note the government’s aim to have a sustainable soil management regime in place by 2030, and the specific COP 21 commitment made in Paris last year to raise soil carbon levels by 0.4% annually.
The CAP cross compliance regime could help here, but the report concludes there is little evidence it is making a difference – the focus is on preventing soil damage rather than actively promoting soil restoration. The Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions are not ambitious enough, the report says.
Defra’s imminent 25 year food and farming plan should include a strategy for soil improvement in line with the 2030 sustainability goals, the report recommends. This requires a joined up approach across government to ensure the drive to improve sustainable production does not further compromise soil health.
There is also a need to collect reliable data through a national soil monitoring programme – a system that has been recommended for at least two decades, but with no government response. This could be EU-funded.
The report draws particular attention to maize growing for the AD sector. The double subsidy for AD crops – BPS and renewables – has led to an increase in maize plantings, but the authors say the crop can damage soil health when managed incorrectly. The renewable subsidy should be changed to either exclude maize or make its use subject to stricter controls, state the MPs.
Other measures recommended include better peat soil management and restoration; and a return to central funding for the identification and remediation of contaminated land by local councils. Up to 300,000 hectares of UK soil are thought to be contaminated with toxic elements such as cadmium, arsenic and lead, in addition to asbestos, tar and landfill, as a result of the UK's industrial past.
"Soil degradation could mean that some of our most productive agricultural land becomes unprofitable within a generation,” notes Environment Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh MP. “Every tonne of carbon we can retain in the soil will help us meet our carbon budgets and slow climate change. The government wants to see all soils managed sustainably by 2030, but their current actions will not be enough to reach that goal."