Time to rethink our farming and save our soils

Hope springs eternal…

Alerted to a gardening article in the county media singing the praises of a report from CPRE, the countryside charity, on the importance of our soils, we thought this would be a salient time to revisit it ourselves.
The report, Back to the Land: Rethinking Our Approach to Soil, was published in December 2018 and calls for a radical rethink of farming practices and soil management to help regenerate the soils that underpin our supply of food and environment. It sets out practical ways to restore soil and new approaches to policy.
Soil provides many benefits to the health of humans as well as our landscapes and wider environment. It is not only fundamental to the production of food but also filters and stores excess water in the ground and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it critical in the fight against climate change.
However, CPRE points out that a combination of industrial farming practices, poor land management and damage from development have created a perfect storm that has resulted in dangerous levels of soil erosion, compaction and a loss of soil’s fertility – this degradation of soil costs some £1.2 billion a year in England and Wales alone.
The report highlights that common farming techniques such as inversion ploughing, as well as overgrazing and compaction from heavy machinery, has led to almost three million tonnes of topsoil being eroded every year across the UK.
These forms of soil degradation have left an area of farmland the size of Yorkshire at risk of further erosion – more than a third of all of the UK’s arable land.
Graeme Willis, CPRE senior rural policy campaigner, said: “Soil must be seen as a fundamental asset for delivering productive farming and a healthy countryside.
“For far too long we have been ignoring the fragility of such a precious commodity. Only now is the government starting address the damage decades of neglect has caused.
“Ensuring our soils are healthy is crucial if we are to effectively tackle climate change – or mitigate its worst effects. New agriculture policy must promote measures that support farmers to sustainably manage, protect and regenerate soils, and drive carbon from the atmosphere back into the ground.”
Damage from development is also a major threat to health of England’s soils, says the report. Based on current annual rates of land lost to development, CPRE warns that 1,580 sq km of farmland, an area the size of Greater London, will be lost within a decade.
In addition to killing soil by sealing it with concrete or tarmac, development projects also excavate tens of millions of tonnes of soil every year, much of which is treated as waste.
The most recent data highlighted in the report show that in 2014, in the UK, more than 20 million tonnes of soil was sent to landfill – equivalent to the weight of more than 400 Titanics – and that almost half (45 per cent) of all ‘waste’ buried in the same year was soil.
CPRE is warning that, to effectively address climate change and limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C in the timeframes set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), urgent action is needed to halt the degradation and loss of our soils.
In the UK, soil stores roughly 10 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 70 years of annual UK greenhouse gas emissions. However, degradation has led to most arable soils having already lost 40-60% of their organic carbon.
Preventing the loss of greenhouse gases from soils and rebuilding their carbon stores means that better farming and land use will be crucial in our attempt to limit the worst effects of climate change.
If properly managed, soils could help to reduce the flooding and erosion that more frequent extreme weather is bringing. However, if continued to be managed badly, soils will lack the resilience to cope with storms or drought, CPRE fears.
The report sets out five innovative yet practical solutions that would reduce the degradation and loss of soil and help to regenerate it through sustainable management.
The first four relate to farming practice and the last to how policy might reduce damage to soils from development.
Soil-sensitive farming such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry, pasture-based livestock farming and farming on rewetted peatlands, if scaled up, would help the government reach its emissions targets by locking in carbon, as well as help combat the effects of climate change, improve water quality and restore the health of the natural environment.
CPRE suggests specific policy measures that could support the scaling up of these approaches, such as ensuring the Environmental Land Management scheme is properly funded and incentivises farmers by rewarding them for protecting and regenerating soils.
The government must put in place a firm goal to stop soil degradation by 2030 and establish a new goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 2050.

  • To read Back to the Land: Rethinking Our Approach to Soil, click here

Monday, March 2, 2020

How we all stand to lose as our council-owned farms disappear

Stephen and Lynn Briggs at Whitehall Farm

Council-owned county farms are in terminal decline, which means future generations of young farmers – and our communities more broadly – won’t benefit from these wonderful assets, according to a new report launched today (Monday, December 16) by CPRE.
County farms were set up at the end of the 19th century to provide a way into farming for young farmers and have huge potential to generate income, provide an opportunity to promote innovative farming methods and deliver environmentally sustainable farming to help tackle the climate emergency.
Their decline is significant, with the area of county farms in England falling by more than half from 426,000 acres to just under 209,000 acres since the late 1970s – as a result of privatisation, austerity and short-term thinking by governments and councils.
More than 15,000 acres (7 per cent) of council-owned farmland has been lost in the past decade alone, with 60 per cent of this land sold off in the past two years. This alarming trend, warns the report, could continue unless new legislation that protects county farms for future generations is introduced.
However, the key findings from Reviving county farms, which is a report prepared for CPRE by the New Economics Foundation, Shared Assets and Who Owns England?, show that:

• More than 50 per cent of county farm estates have disappeared over the past 40 years

• More than 15,000 acres (7 per cent) of this has been lost in the past decade alone

• Almost 60 per cent of county farmland sold since 2010 has been in the past two years

• Austerity, coupled with a sense that county farms are ‘a thing of the past’, and an unwillingness by some councils to innovate to develop new income streams or business models, is driving the decline of county farms

• Councils that have taken very different approaches, leading them to protect and even expand their county farm estates, have yielded positive results

• County farms could play an important role in addressing the climate emergency and also deliver benefits to local communities, such as providing locally-grown food for nearby schools

• Seven out of nine councils that responded to the survey gave details of environmental and social benefits provided by their county farms, ranging from tree-planting to local education initiatives to supporting new farmers.

Case study
Whitehall Farm is a 100-hectare farm owned by Cambridgeshire County Council and managed by Stephen Briggs on a 15-year tenancy, along with more than 300 hectares of other land.
Briggs has taken an innovative agroforestry arable crops approach to build the profitability, resilience and sustainability of the farm.
He has interplanted arable crops with 4,500 apple trees that provide an income and protect soil and growing crops from the risk of extreme weather as a result of the climate emergency. 
Birds such as grey partridge, owls, tree sparrow, reed bunting and yellowhammer are flourishing in the environmentally sensitive farmland.
Briggs and his wife Lynn have also opened Harvest Barn farm shop and café on their county farm site. The shop sells local and certified organic fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm as well as locally sourced lamb, beef and pork, cakes and biscuits and jams and preserves.
Briggs said: “Thanks to the county farms system, I have been able to run my own farm and try an innovative and successful soils-based farming approach.
“The support I have received from my local county council has been invaluable. I’d like to see all local authorities encourage new entrants with fresh ideas and perspectives like me to go into agriculture to keep this wonderful resource in the community as a vital asset.
“There are economic incentives for councils, too, as the rent from our county farm and its innovative diversifications goes straight back to the county council, helping fund front-line services.”
Graeme Willis, agriculture lead at CPRE, said: “Whitehall Farm is a great example of a county farm having an economic, environmental and social impact.
“Our research shows that the number of county farms in England alarmingly continues to plummet at a time when these wonderful assets should be protected, and invested in, to ensure they’re available for future generations.
“CPRE is calling on the new government to introduce legislation to stop the sale of county farms and to give them a new purpose.
“A package of measures and new funding to enable councils to enhance and invest in their estates and better promote them is urgently needed.
“CPRE wants to see county farms recognised locally and nationally for their potential to address the climate emergency and deliver wider public benefits to meet the needs of their communities.”
Kate Swade, report co-author, said: “The sell-off of the county farms estate is a national tragedy, squandering a public resource that is crucial to getting fresh blood into farming. Enough is enough: it’s time the new government halted the sale of county farms and invested in them properly for the future.”

Monday, December 16, 2019