More action on soils required

1st July 2016

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Lucinda Knight

The government must do more to protect soil health and Defra should reinstate funding for contaminated land remediation, a group of MPs has urged.

The environmental audit committee warned in a report that a failure to prevent soil degradation could lead to increased flood risk, lower food security and greater carbon emissions. Committee chair Mary Creagh described soil as a Cinderella environmental issue. ‘It doesn’t receive as much attention as air pollution, water quality or climate change.

But society relies on healthy soil for the food we eat, for flood prevention, and for storing carbon. The government says it wants our soil to be managed sustainably by 2030, but there is no evidence that it is putting in place the policies to make this happen,’ she said.

The committee criticised Defra’s decision to withdraw capital grant funding for local authorities to clean up land, noting that around 300,000 hectares of UK soil are thought to be contaminated with toxic elements, such as cadmium, arsenic and lead. They warned that untreated contamination could harm public health and water quality.

Creagh said Defra had been complacent in withdrawing the grants, which had undermined the ability of councils to identify and clean up polluted brownfield sites not dealt with through the planning system. ‘Ministers must rethink their decision to phase out contamination clean up grants,’ she said.

The MPs also warned that rising levels of soil degradation risked increasing UK CO2 emissions and, because soil is a massive carbon sink, speeding up climate change. The UK’s arable soils have seen a worrying decline in carbon levels since 1978, with widespread and ongoing decline in peat soil carbon, they said. The committee called for the introduction of a rolling national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health to ensure adequate information is gathered about the state of the nation’s soil.

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