The UK is 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility” in parts of the country, the environment secretary Michael Gove has warned.
“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth,” Gove told the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA). “Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.
“If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.”
Arguing that farmers needed to be incentivised to tackle both the loss of soil fertility and the decline in biodiversity, Gove said that he hoped the SSA, a new body formed with the mission of bringing UK soils back to health within one generation, would hold the government to account and bring him ideas and inspiration. “We are listening to you now and it’s critical that we do so.”
Gove’s speech on Monday afternoon came as UK farmers anxiously wait to see if Brexit will take them out of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and if so, what will take its place. Defra is currently working on a new agricultural bill and is simultaneously drawing up a 25-year environmental plan. Gove promised both would reflect the concerns of the SSA.
There has been a spike in awareness of the impact that intensive farming techniques are having on the world’s soils and its biodiversity. In 2014 Sheffield University researchers said that UK farm soils only had 100 harvests left in them, and a year later a UN spokesperson warned that at current rates of degradation, the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years. “It feels as if soil is now a hot topic,” said Helen Browning, head of the Soil Association. Meanwhile a new German study has revealed that numbers of flying insects have fallen by up to three quarters. Intensive farming techniques that encourage the heavy use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are believed to be major factors in these problems.
The UK has a poor record in this area. The government has not been conducting regular soil monitoring since the last Countryside Survey in 2007, and in 2012 UK ministers helped block a critical EU soil health directive. Even a year ago, experts such as Peter Stevenson at Compassion in World Farming felt there was no real appetite for reform of intensive farming.
But environmentalists are now increasingly hopeful that, unlike his predecessors at Defra, Gove will take this issue seriously. In July he said that the UK would not move towards “US-style farming” and would prioritise “high environmental and animal welfare standards”. “There’s been quite a dramatic shift in understanding around what we’re doing to our soils,” said Browning. “Everyone is quite bowled over by some of the comments that Michael Gove is making.”
Gove, as one of the leaders of the leave campaign, has a huge stake in making post-Brexit environment and agriculture policy a success, and key farming organisations appear to be shifting their positions on soil issues. The National Farmers Union, who were present at the event, have long been defenders of intensive farming. But three years ago they set up an environment forum, and yesterday its chair Mark Pope said that he is seeing a surge of interest and support for these issues from NFU members. In a blog published on the NFU website earlier in the week, Pope wrote: “We only get one lot of soil on our farms, so poor management could have major, irreversible impacts for many years to come.”
“There is a groundswell of interest in this, a terrific opportunity,” said Rebecca Pow MP, parliamentary private secretary to Michael Gove. Pow was brought up on a farm and worked as a journalist specialising in the environment, food and farming before becoming an MP in 2015, and she has been an energising force around the issue of soil and sustainable farming in parliament. “I voted remain,” she said yesterday. “But nevertheless, there is an opportunity here that we wouldn’t have had before.”
“The UK used to be the world’s leading agronomic centre, and could be again,” argued Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project. He wants to see “a new agricultural revolution”, elevating agronomy – the science of soil and crops – to a better respected profession, and turning the UK back into a world leader in soil and farming expertise.
TRANSCRIPT OF PLENARY @ SENNEDD Tues Oct 17 2017
Please find below the transcript from the recent Plenary session. Questions put to the Minister. A clear indication that the angling lobby can work, we must keep the pressure on and have contact with ALL AM’s.
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