*Soil Association website, 28th April 2017.
In the run-up to the general election, we’re urging all parties to commit to protecting and restoring soil health in their manifestos – as 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.
Healthy soils are essential for food security, climate change and public health. Yet, soils have been neglected and left to deteriorate. 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. In the UK, we lose an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil each year, costing around £45 million per year, of which £9 million is in lost production and reduced yields.
It’s essential that the new Government acts to stop the loss of UK soils.
A key measure of soil health is levels of soil organic matter (SOM), which is crucial for long-term yields, food quality, extreme weather resilience, and as a vital store of soil carbon. Increasing the organic content of British agricultural soils would be game-changing. 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.
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.
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 onto 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 next Government should establish the regular monitoring and reporting of soil organic matter by farmers to form 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, often they 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.
Any agriculture policy proposed by the new Government must increase support for cover crops.
Improving the SOM and soil carbon levels in UK soils should be a priority for the incoming UK government. Not only would such an approach increase yields but it would also help mitigate the impacts of climate change by helping to sequester carbon and reduce emissions.
Soil protection is one of our top manifesto asks for all parties. Until Tuesday 2 May, it’s still possible to email your current MP to let them know that soil health matters to you. You can email your MP easily from here. If you have your own ideas for food and farming priorities, please share them too. Not all candidates for the general election have been selected yet but, if they have in your area, now is also a good time to contact them.