It’s crunch time for our soils
THE soil of England is an image that speaks powerfully to us of roots and nationhood. We may not kiss the land like some of our more exuberant neighbours, but our feelings for our native earth are no less strong. Despite our acres of concrete and our industrial and mining landscapes, that feeling remains, although we pay little attention to its health and have almost entirely ignored its degradation.
In that sense, the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change brings us up with a start. It not only talks of emissions, pollution, vehicles and fossil fuels, but it also voices serious concern at the alarming degradation of our soils.
Fertility has been declining for years. Modern measures mean heavy machinery compacting the earth, widespread irrigation speeding erosion, farming monoculture failing to replace what it takes out and soil becoming less and less productive and increasingly unable to sequestrate carbon. This is not only about protecting us from climate change: in a world in which food production is increasingly under pressure, the loss of fertility is at least as important.
The shrinking Fens—britain’s most productive arable area—are the most visible example. Markers allow one to see that the land throughout has fallen many feet below the level of a century ago. The draining of the peat makes it more friable and easily blown away from fields where hedges and trees have been ripped out. The covering of productive earth is now so thin that, in our lifetime, it will cease to be able to give us the vegetables and salads for which it’s famed. Since 1850, Britain has lost 84% of fertile topsoil and the erosion continues by between 1cm and 3cm [a third to one inch] a year.
It’s crunch time. We either reverse the degradation process or our children will inherit dirt, not soil. It’s a timely message for a Government about to embark on an Agriculture Bill intended to chart the future of farming outside the EU. Farmers hope that this process will deliver the same volume of support with less bureaucracy, environmentalists are looking for enhanced public benefit and the Treasury intends to corner as much of the £3 billion of subsidy as it can. The danger is that, in attempting to satisfy these competing demands, ministers will ignore the most precious asset: the soil.
It’s not that there are no answers, nor that there are no progressive landowners buying into them. It’s simply that most farmers are concentrating on making ends meet and embracing short-term measures simply to keep in business. This means that they go on fertilising heavily and continue deep ploughing instead of moving to no-till culture.
They reject the example of The Archers and scorn the use of herbal leys, which provide a rich mixture of planting in place of the usual single crop of chemically fertilised grass. They ignore the fact that these leys are nutritious for livestock, improve the soil, bring up valuable trace elements from lower down in the earth and help to sequestrate the carbon, which creates greater fertility.
Instead, we go on ineluctably taking the goodness out of our soil. It will not be a shortterm process to reverse this damage, but this is the one moment at which we could do it. The Government should have the courage to make Brexit a real opportunity and produce a Bill that continues agricultural support at the present levels, but only to farmers who can show they’re improving their soil. That would be farming in the national interest and thoroughly worth paying for.
‘or We either reverse the degradation our children will inherit dirt