Soil science involves the study of the formation and distribution of soil, the biological, chemical and physical properties and processes of soil and how these processes interact with wider systems to help inform environmental management, industry and sustainable development.
Soil is an important, non-renewable natural resource, which makes a significant contribution to biodiversity and provides a wide range of ecosystem services. Soil is vital for the agricultural, forestry and building industries, holds a substantial amount of the world’s carbon and has a fundamental role in cycling nutrients, controlling water drainage, and removing pollutants. These important ecosystem services mean that soil science is more important than ever. Intensive agriculture, urban development leading to the removal and sealing of soils, and pollution all pose threats to soils, through erosion, compaction, loss of organic material, and biodiversity. These problems, and so the importance of achieving sustainable management of soils, are only likely to increase in the face of challenges such as climate change and sustaining a rapidly increasing global population.
Recent policy issues and developments
In 2006 the European Commission adopted a Soil Framework Directive, which set out proposals for a common approach to monitoring and sustainably protecting soils across Europe. However, the UK government was part of a minority group that blocked the directive in 2007, going against the recommendations of numerous scientific bodies and organisations, including the Society of Biology.
In early 2008, we joined a number of professional bodies, learned societies and research organisations in writing to Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, urging the Government to continue negotiations with the European Commission and other Member States on a legal framework for good management of soil resources.
Scientific evidence unequivocally supports the case for improved protection of European soils. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that an effective legal framework exists to protect especially the most versatile and valuable soil systems.
Although soil may be located in a particular member state, the effects of its poor protection and management impact widely: the importance of soil systems to carbon, water resource and biodiversity management at continental scales is constantly underlined in the scientific literature. The loss of highly productive soil to urban expansion is materially reducing capacity for food production, which is of strategic concern to us all.
We were therefore disappointed that the Secretary of State replied in August 2008 to our second letter: “I do not feel that the proposals currently on the table would enable the UK to meet its policy objectives for protecting soils in the most effective way.”
In 2009 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published Safeguarding our soils: a strategy for England, which set out guidance and a number of long term objectives for policy and research towards achieving sustainable soil management. The current government has also adopted this document as setting out the “current policy context on soils”.
More recently, a pair of policy and scientific reports published by the European Commission in 2012 reiterated the need for sustainable management of soils, the need to increase research in this area, and benefits of implementing a common approach throughout the EU. These topics were also discussed at a meeting of The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology in April 2012, titled “The Death of British Farmland”, which looked at the potential for soil management practices to influence the future of UK farming.
A 2012 in-depth report by the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy specifically addressed the growing problem or soil sealing through urbanisation and the impacts this can have on flooding risks and local climates.
Further information on all aspects of soil science can be found on the website of our member organisation the British Society of Soil Science (http://www.soils.org.uk).
Information and publications relating to the European Commission’s research and policy on soil issues can be found here: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/soil/index_en.htm.
The UK government’s soil strategy from 2009, which was republished in 2011, is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/safeguarding-our-soils-a-strategy-for-england.