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
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.