Urgent action is needed to protect UK soils, report says

The Soil Association is calling on policy makers and farmers to do their bit to protect UK soils.

The Soil Association is calling on policy makers and farmers to do their bit to protect UK soils. - Credit: Archant

Urgent action is needed to address the poor state of UK soils, a charity has warned.

Organic farmer John Pawsey, of Shimpling Park Farm, explains cultural methods to control black gras

Organic farmer John Pawsey, of Shimpling Park Farm, explains cultural methods to control black grass at a Soil Association event March 2015 - Credit: Archant

The Soil Association, which promotes organic farming methods and “healthy, humane and sustainable” food, is calling on farmers to increase the use of organic matter to prevent further degradation of UK soils and urging policy makers to support measures to improve soil health.

It has published a report, entitled Seven Ways to Save our Soils, which outlines seven key ways to increase soil organic matter in arable and horticultural soils by 20% over the next 20 years - a target which it believes should be adopted in the UK.

It warns soils are degrading, along with farmers’ ability to keep up food production.

“Compaction and signs of surface run-off are visible in many fields, which can increase the risk of localised flooding,” it said.

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“Healthy soil reduced the risk of floods - storing as much as 3,750 tonnes of water per hectare, the equivalent of one and a half Olympic swimming pools.”

Farmers could play a “huge part” in reducing the risk of localised flooding, at the same time as making their own farms more climate-resilient, it added.

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The charity, which was founded in Suffolk in 1946 by a group of farmers, scientists and nutrionists through a movement led by farming pioneer Lady Eve Balfour of Haughley Green, near Stowmarket, said the problem with the current approach to soil health was “partly cultural”.

“Farmers have come to see agro-chemicals as the main source of fertility and pest/disease control. This has led farmers not only to overlook the unintended consequences of agro-chemicals damaging soils, it has also diverted attention from soil health which should be at the heart of farm decision-making,” the report said.

“The agrochemical industry has helped perpetuate this culture. It has also arguably diverted research from more innovative farming practices. In particular, there is an increasing realisation that soil life may be the key to crop productivity, but little research is being invested in this area and huge knowledge gaps remain.”

Increasing organic matter was not only important for protecting agricultural productivity, but also made soils better at locking up carbon, and more resilient to floods and droughts, it argued.

“They are more able to absorb excess rainfall and therefore have the potential to reduce flooding downstream. In turn, these effects all protect land from unpredictable weather events which are increasingly affecting farmers.”

Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, said the unintended consequences of current soil management practice had led to the “perilous state” of UK soils today.

“We need to ensure farmers have the right understanding and guidance to change this and improve the health of our soils,” she said.

“As well as providing guidance for farmers, we are asking the Government to improve incentives for farming practices that promote healthy soils and to fund research which will fill the gaps in demonstrating the real-world advantages of such practices for farmers. We need the government to commit to our target of increasing soil organic matter by 20% over the next 20 years.”

The report recommends a series of measures to improve soil health, and the Soil Association is challenging the Government and farmers to “play their part”.

John Pawsey, an organic farmer based at Shimpling, near Bury St Edmunds, who last year played host to one of the largest annual UK events for organic growers, National Organic Combinable Crops, welcomed the report.

“As an organic farmer I already practice techniques like crop rotation to make sure my farm is as productive as it can be,” he said.

“The [Innovative Farmers] field labs we have been involved have had some interesting side effects that might also help improve the fertility and soil organic matter in our soil – notably the sheep, which are fertilising the ground as they go along. It is great that the Soil Association is seeking more support for organic farming and soils.”

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