It’s crunch time for our soils

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor - Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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

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