An historic combination of industrial farming practices, poor land management and damage from development is blamed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) for a “perfect storm” which has resulted in alarming levels of soil erosion, compaction under heavy machinery and a loss of soil fertility.
With every passing year, almost three million tonnes of topsoil worth around £1.2bn is eroded across the UK, the campaign group claims.
In a new report published today, CPRE calls for a radical rethink of farming practices and soil management in order to regenerate soils which play a crucial role in underpinning food production and the health of the natural environment.
The solution, CPRE says, is for the more widespread adoption of environmentally-sensitive farming methods. Those methods include no ploughing, vegetation being introduced to prevent bare soils and a greater diversity of crop species being grown.
Agroforestry, whereby trees share farmland with arable crops or pasture, should be considered, and so too should pasture-based farming which typically involves sheep and cattle grazing on grass, wildflowers and herbs.
Farming on rewetted peatlands also has a role to play, campaigners said.
The CPRE believes that adopting these measures more widely across the country would increase how much carbon is locked into farmland, improve water quality and restore soil quality.
In order to adopt these systems, the group calls for farmers to be adequately incentivised and funded through the Government’s proposed new Environmental Land Management scheme as direct farming support payments are phased out. It also urges the Government to set a “firm” goal to stop soil degradation by 2030 and to set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 2050.
Graeme Willis, senior rural policy campaigner at the CPRE, said: “For far too long we have been ignoring the fragility of such a precious commodity. Only now is the Government starting to 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.”
Last week, Environment Secretary Michael Gove launched a new report into how climate change will affect the UK. It included a plan for farmers to receive payments for things like planting cover crops to protect soil and planting trees on agricultural land.
In response to the CPRE’s report, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The Environment Secretary has been very clear we will take the action required to ensure our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges the changing climate brings.
“Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan reaffirmed our commitment to improve the health of our soils by 2030 and future agriculture policy will incentivise sustainable farming practices that improve the health and fertility of our soils.”