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Soil for politicians: how we can use soil data in evidence-based policy making

Aerial view of the Centre for Sustainable Cropping (c) James Hutton Institute
"Soils are moving up the policy agenda globally and the establishment of the Global Soil Partnership is a key component of this.

Willie Towers, Environmental and Biochemical Sciences; Dr Katrin Prager, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences, James Hutton Institute

Unlike water and air, there are few policies that seek to protect or indeed recognise soils. However, many policies indirectly influence soil management, reflecting the cross cutting nature of soils across different policy areas and their multifunctional nature. Soils are relevant to the agriculture and forestry industries and to the planning, conservation, waste management, water quality, climate change and heritage sectors to name but a few. Difficulties in formulating soil-specific policies were exemplified by the shelving of the European Soil Framework Directive after a number of member states could not agree to it.

In Scotland, the cross-cutting nature of soils was recognised in the compilation of the Scottish Soil Framework (SSF) in 2009. A key objective was to enable more dialogue between different sectors and ultimately a better cross-sectoral approach to soil policy, regulation and management. A key step preceding its publication was to review the state of Scotland’s soils and any evidence that its functionality was being adversely affected by a number of threats including climate change, erosion, sealing and mineral extraction, compaction, contamination, loss of organic matter and of biodiversity. This review of the available evidence provided the platform for two of the main planks of the SSF; a set of desired soil Outcomes and a number of agreed Actions required to achieve them, both within an enabling rather than a restrictive ethos. The Framework helped raise awareness of soil in other policy areas of government notably the role of peatlands as part of Scotland’s climate change mitigation strategy. Interestingly, the current policy interest in our peatlands is one of safeguarding the resource as part of our response to climate change; it is only a few decades ago that the policy was to exploit it as a fuel or for woodland expansion. Irrespective of policy priorities at any specific time, the data (and associated research) can be interpreted and utilised for a number of different objectives.

In order to enhance use of soil data and information as a basis for policy making, it is important that all actors involved are aware of and can make use of this data. Making soil data available to all interested parties was a key component of the Scottish Soil Framework and this has been done both over the internet and through the development of mobile apps. Increasingly, these data are hosted on a central, publicly accessible internet platform, Scotland’s Soils website, in addition to data and digital maps being available free of charge to public bodies such as local authorities. Communication about available soil information needs to be ongoing, both in terms of what is required by users (e.g. planning departments and contaminated land departments, farmers), as well as what is available and how to access it.

Much of Scotland (85%) is designated as Less Favoured Area (LFA) under Council Directive 75/268, due to adverse climatic, soil and topographic conditions, and included socio-economic criteria such as depopulation, inadequate infrastructure or the need for support for rural tourism, crafts and other supplementary activities. However, after concern from the European Court of Auditors in 2005 about the designation in some member states, the Commission has moved progressively towards a method of delineation of land with natural disadvantage using biophysical criteria only. The Scottish Government has been very proactive with the research community in this process. Initially, we examined the relationship between the current LFA boundary and the James Hutton Institute’s Land Capability for Agriculture (LCA) classification. A good relationship was found, not unexpectedly as LCA ‘ranks land on the basis… to which its physical characteristics (soil, climate and relief) impose restrictions on its agricultural use’.

Despite LCA providing an option for refining the LFA boundary, the European Commission did not want country-specific solutions and through the Joint Research Centre in Ispra identified eight biophysical criteria to be applied objectively across the 27 member states. The approach and criteria have similarities to the LCA method although some are not relevant to Scotland. The 1:250,000 national soil dataset proved invaluable in the extensive testing period of these criteria, allowing stony, sandy, wet and shallow soils to be identified, based on the thresholds developed at the JRC. Scotland’s soil data proved fit for purpose in this process; ironically, it was the temperature component of the criteria that proved troublesome due to the selection of inappropriate thresholds. Discussions are ongoing to address this and to delineate a realistic Area of Natural Constraint for Scotland.

Soils are moving up the policy agenda globally and the establishment of the Global Soil Partnership is a key component of this. Scottish soil scientists are heavily involved in this initiative notably in the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS) and in developing the European Soil Partnership objectives.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of The Geographer, the magazine of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and has been reproduced by kind permission of the RSGS.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.