Merrick Denton-Thompson joined the Rt Hon. Michael Gove MP at a round-table discussion focusing on soil health and Defra’s 25-year environment plan

Monday's meeting with Defra officials, prior to the Wednesday round table with Michael Gove MP. Left to right: Kim Wilkie CMLI; Sonia Phippard, Director General of Defra; Nick Barter, Deputy Director of Natural Environment Strategy (Defra); Wiltshire-based sustainable farmer Henry Edmunds; and Merrick Denton-Thompson, President of the LI

LI President Merrick Denton-Thompson attended two key meetings last week to discuss the future of the UK environment.

On Monday 18th September, alongside LI Chief Executive Daniel Cook and Kim Wilkie CMLI, Merrick joined senior officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to discuss Defra’s 25-year environment plan. On Wednesday 21st, the president was invited to attend a round-table discussion with Secretary of State Michael Gove. Other academic experts present included representatives from Cranfield University, the Soil Association, and many other food, farming and environmental organisations.

The group shared insight and discussed policy proposals, with a particular focus on soil health. Merrick was pleased that the secretary of state was ‘very receptive’ to the LI’s proposals for the future of the UK’s countryside, including:

  • harnessing the power of natural systems in farming and landscape management, and a possible return to mixed farming methods
  • considering in the environment plan a wide range of factors including resilience, quality of water, air, food and soil, biodiversity, and public health and wellbeing
  • better utilising the experience of senior National Park and AONB figures in the post-Brexit delivery of policy
  • developing skills in sustainable land management and researching, and piloting, new approaches

At the round table, Mr Gove outlined his intention to publish the environment plan during the 2017 calendar year. He acknowledged the crucial importance of soil quality to food production and numerous other public goods, understanding that if current rates of soil degradation continue, ‘we only have 60 harvests left in our soils’.

‘I was impressed that Michael Gove is showing bold leadership in his approach to developing a new environmental plan,’ Merrick said. ‘Restoring the health of our nation’s soils is vital. The environment secretary gave us well over an hour of his time, and was very receptive to new ideas that could potentially transform agriculture in the UK, placing us in a world-leading position in terms of sustainable farming and landscape management practices.’

Participants reflected that knowledge of soils is wholly inadequate since Defra stopped funding soil research 10 years ago. The secretary of state promised to reinstate the research funding pot. There was also discussion about how to measure the return from public investment into soil restoration. As Merrick observed: ‘Though we have a complete DNA profile of our soils as they are at present, transforming the microbial content of soils as national policy will depend very much on the desired outcomes.’

Participants supported a return to a more resilient mixed-farming approach. But the Merrick pointed out that the skills and infrastructure were no longer present, and called for urgent solutions if UK practice is to undergo the necessary transformations.

Other key arguments made by the president included:

  • the need to articulate the 25-year environment plan at ‘landscape scale’
  • the need for clarification of science around the use of agricultural chemicals if we are to identify the unintended consequences of current practices
  • that public money should not be used to fund systems that pollute aquifers and air, destroy soils and wildlife, and diminish our natural capital assets
  • that certainty and long-term public investment are crucial to making our farming systems more sustainable

The environment secretary and LI president also discussed the LI’s view that the National Landscape Character Maps – defined by soils, science and communities – would be more appropriate than catchment management maps as the basis for future environmental management.


  1. I heard recently that geologists are now designating our own era ( perhaps the last 3000 years, but especially since the Industrial Revolution) as one where human activity has so greatly altered the surface of the Earth, with excavation, landfill, dumping and soil pollution and erosion that the sum total is equivalent to a geological epoch.

    Looking at Google Earth view this morning, looking at that wonderful living feature, the River Severn estuary, I was aghast to see the massive spread of industrial estates over areas around the Severn Bridges, Gloucester, and Newport where hundreds of acres of good, level farmland, have been covered in the last 30 years with enormous warehouses. These of course necessitated the stripping of the topsoil, the bulldozing of the subsoil to make level platforms, and laying of hardcore followed by thick concrete rafts, topped off by the buildings constructed of metal, glass, plastic and concrete.

    No doubt, some of the topsoil has been piled into some perimeter mounding, planted (sadly, only in the best examples) with a few trees. Some soil will have been sold off, and maybe used on housing estates, laid over compacted subsoil in tiny back gardens, and a large amount will probably have been mucked about with, mixed with subsoil, driven over by bulldozers, compacted, and , in effect, destroyed

    I drove a few years ago from Madrid along the motorway Southwards to Toledo, World Heritage City. 90% of my journey was through a depressing, degraded / derelict landscape of new and old workshops, retail outlets, cement plants, and transport yards. Even the best bits looked semi derelict, with no trees in sight.

    Rather than clearing dereliction and reusing the redundant sites, the routine development answer was to build on open farmland next door, and cover it with hardcore and concrete, resulting in a landscape of outstanding blight, ugliness and wasted landscape and destroyed soil resources. If only Unesco would look at the contextual landscape as well as the city itself !

    With a burgeoning world population, it’s clear that the soil is our future—( I include rock, subsoil and topsoil in this term) not only for food production, and providing filtration and storage for clean water supplies, but as the host for the oxygenating, air-filtering, medicineyielding vegetation, timber and plant-based natural fibres we use and need.

    Thankfully for us, the ability of tiny seeds to germinate and grow in the smallest depth of dust and extend roots that eventually break into and smash up tarmac and asphalt, is remarkable, as is the ability of micro-organisms to render pollutants neutral.

    It’s clear that given time, these God-given life forms will break down the inert waste and much of the polluted material, into soil capable of sustaining plants again, but as we all know, it all takes hundreds or even thousands of years in temperate zones, but more or never, in dry lands.

    We can’t spoil and wait– which is what we have been doing. it’s so obvious, or should be, that we just need to stop destroying, and start to conserve the soil resources we have.

    Why, in the UK, have we not already planted enough windbreaks in the last 50 years, to stop the huge loss of over a metre of rich fenland soils?. If we carry on like this, there will be no field-grown English lettuces to eat in a few years!

    So, thank you Merrick and the LI for raising the “soil profile (!) ” to the UK Government. Let’s hope that the initiative …..bears good and ample fruit!

    Lewis White CMLI

  2. This is great news on a really important subject, look forward to hearing what comes of it and taking a look at the Environment Plan that is mentioned.

    One thought, soils need to managed on a river catchment basis as they are so closely linked to these in many ways. Landscape Character is important and should be considered fully but in the context of the Catchment Based Approach.

    David Chapman CMLI


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