Soil Loss

This report appeared in the Guardian 24/10/17

UK is 30-40 years away from ‘eradication of soil fertility’, warns Gove

Farmers must be incentivised to tackle decline in biodiversity, says environment secretary at launch of parliamentary soil body

Autumn drilling near Ivinghoe village, Chilterns, Buckinghamshire
 ‘If you drench soil in chemicals that improves yields … but ultimately you are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that,” said Gove. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

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.”

Michael Gove
 Gove said he hoped the Sustainable Soils Alliance, a body formed to bring UK soils back to health within a generation, would hold government to account. Photograph: Courtesy of NFU

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.

Access – Transcript of Plenary at Sennedd Tuesday 17/10/2017



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.

 Access to Waterways
National Assembly for Wales – Oral Answers – National Assembly for Wales
Mark Isherwood: 4. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the benefits that access to waterways brings to Wales? (OAQ51188)

Lesley Griffiths: In addition to considering activity tourism and recreation participation reports and strategies, the Welsh Government has undertaken significant public engagement. The recent consultation on sustainable management of our natural resources received around 15,000 responses. All show the value and potential of water recreation activities such as angling and boating and why a resolution to current disagreements is necessary.

Mark Isherwood: Thank you. The September 2017 update on the report ‘The value to the Welsh economy of angling on inland fisheries in Wales’, collated by the Sustainable Access Campaign Cymru, found that under the current arrangement for access to Welsh rivers, around 1,500 Welsh jobs and £45 million in household income is supported by angling on inland fisheries each year. There are 1.7 million days fished on inland fisheries in Wales by licence holders, generating £104 million annually, and that the contribution to the Welsh economy of angling on inland fisheries in Wales must exceed over £125 million annually in Wales. In that context, how do you respond to the concern expressed by Salmon and Trout Conservation Cymru that it would not be in the interest of the ecological integrity of such habitats to move to unfettered access under the proposed extensions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and that environmental protection is paramount when consideration is given to increased access to the natural resources of Wales, and especially the fragile ecosystems in and around rivers and lakes?

Lesley Griffiths: I think your question lends me to say that it’s really important that you get the balance right, and that’s absolutely why we’ve consulted on such an important issue. You’re quite right, fishing tourism, in both domestic and day-trip visits to Wales, is very important. I think it was about £38 million in 2015. You referred to a report in 2017, but I know in 2015 it was about £38 million per year. I think it also highlights the importance of developing a framework so that we can facilitate responsible access opportunities, going forward.

David Rees: Cabinet Secretary, I have received many representations from constituents regarding this matter in particular, and I think, as you’ve pointed out, there is resolution that needs to come together between the two groups. Now, you’ve just mentioned fishing tourism, but many of our citizens actually enjoy fishing as a pastime, and therefore enjoy the activities they undertake, not as tourist activities, but as part of their spare time. Do you agree with me that, actually, a way of resolving these by coming together and getting an agreement that is voluntary between the organisations is the best solution, not having something imposed upon them?

Lesley Griffiths: Yes, I do, but I think—. You know, when I was a backbencher, this was a very hot topic, and I think the consultation showed it can be incredibly divisive and incredibly polarised, so it is about getting that resolution. We want to see that because it is vital for our tourism. So, I’m hoping that, following the analysis of the consultations and when we come forward with resolutions, we’re able to engage with all the stakeholders to make sure we have the absolute best way forward.

David J. Rowlands: Cabinet Secretary, following on from the comments earlier, I’m sure you’re aware of the potential for conflict that free access to Wales’s waterways may bring between those who use them in differing ways, in particular anglers and canoeists. I would say that David Rees is quite right in that if we can get some consultation between these two groups, that’s the best way forward. Unfortunately, the feedback to me from the angling societies is that there doesn’t seem to be that desire for talking coming from the canoeists.

I’ve been contacted by a number of angling societies, and have had meetings with Isca and Hay-on-Wye, one situated on the river Usk and the other on the river Wye. Both showed considerable concern with regard to canoe activity on the rivers, which, at this moment, is not regulated. One important factor pointed out is that canoes do not carry any form of identification, so any canoeist committing offences or simple nuisance cannot be identified. Does the Cabinet Secretary intend to bring in regulations to make registration and, hence, identification a mandatory requirement? Are there any plans to get canoeists to pay a fee for access to our waterways, as, of course, anglers have to, by way of fishing licences and/or society fees?

Lesley Griffiths: I mentioned in my answer to David Rees that it’s an incredibly divisive issue, and it’s a divisive issue that’s been around for a long time. However, I think this is our opportunity now to get it right. I would certainly want to bring all the groups together. I don’t want to take sides with any group, but if we can facilitate groups coming together, then I’d be very happy to do that. In relation to your specific policy questions around identification and fees, again, that is something that we would have to look at, coming out of the consultation.

Rachel Evans

Director for Wales

Countryside Alliance

Tel: 07825337978 / 01550777997

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