UK: Next government must prioritise soil
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A news item published by the Soil Association explains that in the run-up to the general election in the UK they are urging all parties to commit to protecting and restoring soil health in their manifestos. This should be part of a new vision for agriculture that promotes a holistic landscape approach to farming and transitions to a more environmentally sustainable and resilient food and farming system.
95% of our food comes from the soil, but 40% of all agricultural soils worldwide are seriously degraded. An indicator of soil health is levels of soil organic matter (SOM), which is crucial for long-term yields, food quality, extreme weather resilience, storing carbon and mitigating climate change. Although healthy soils are essential, they have been neglected with the result that almost a third of the world’s arable soils have been lost to erosion and pollution over the last 40 years, and it will take hundreds or thousands of years for these degraded soils to recover naturally. The UK loses an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil each year.
Benefits of improving soils
It is essential that the new Government acts to stop the loss of soils in the UK. By increasing the SOM level in degraded UK soils by 20% over the next 20 years, UK soils would provide better defence against flooding by reducing run-off and would dramatically increase the yield and quality of food produced. Increasing SOM also increases soil carbon levels. Healthy soils act as a carbon sink by drawing carbon down into the soil to store it.
Improving soil health is therefore a critical way to tackle climate change. Recognizing the ability of soil to sequester carbon and its contribution to climate mitigation, the UK signed the French government’s the 4 per 1000 soil carbon initiative at the UN Climate Change Convention in Paris. This initiative aims to increase soil organic carbon by 0.4% each year.
The new Government should provide soil stewardship payments to incentivise farmers to increase the organic matter in the soil and make improving soil health a requirement of all farm tenancies. The next Government should also establish the regular monitoring and reporting of soil organic matter by farmers to create a national database to inform future soil health research and data collection.
Given that healthy soils boost productivity and resilience, farmers have an obvious incentive to increase SOM. However, they often rely on cheap and plentiful nitrogen fertiliser instead. Applying artificial fertiliser is often cheaper, at least in the short term, than building soil fertility. By using cover crops to fix nitrogen from the air and build organic matter in the soil, they would create a healthier soil ecosystem for their crops, increase soil biodiversity and reduce erosion. Thus any agriculture policy proposed by the new Government must increase support for cover crops.
If you’d like to know more about the Soil Association's general election priorities, you can read their full list here.