Warning that poorly-managed soils which are compacted or eroding can reduce yields, contribute to floods and hit water quality, the report also said that many farmers are already taking care of soils. But, it said, while this is delivering benefits, it can come with costs for which they are not reimbursed.
However, the Agriculture Bill, now working its way through Parliament, sets out the new Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which is based on ‘public money for public goods’ and will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidy payment scheme.
The new ELM Scheme includes provision for paying farmers to protect or improve soil quality, alongside other environmental measures including air and water quality and climate change measures such as carbon capture.
The experts behind the report, said soil is often treated as “out of sight, out of mind” but people should be as appalled by badly managed soils as they are by loss of woods or wetlands.
The report highlights the way soil can act as natural flood management by increasing the amount of water seeping into the ground and storing water through its uptake into root systems, but compacted soils prevent this.
Good soil “structure” can improve yields by providing a habitat for earthworms and other organisms which recycle nutrients and prevent erosion.
Healthy soil supports plants and animals above the ground and helps control pests and diseases, the report said.
It also looked at how huge amounts of carbon from plants and other organic matter is trapped and stored in soils, so managing them well makes them more productive and helps in the fight against climate change.
Professor Alastair Fitter, emeritus Professor of Ecology at the University of York and a lead Royal Society Fellow on the report, said: “We should be as appalled by badly-managed soils in our fields as we are by the loss of our woods or wetlands. Our soils lock away more carbon than the vegetation on them, they provide 95 per cent of our food, and when managed well they limit the risk of flooding, while supporting a vast array of life.
“Too often, though, they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.”
He added: “The Government is at a critical moment in setting the course for British farming outside the EU and this evidence synthesis shows how important it is that soils take centre stage in land management policy.”
The report outlined the need for measures including planting cover crops which act not as a cash crop but one which improves the soil, planting grass leys in rotation, more hedges, and developing small wetlands alongside crops or pasture.
Taking into account the wide variety of soils across the UK and the way they are used, the report said a menu of evidence-based options will be needed for payments so land managers can pick the methods that suit their land.
It also said any system for managing soils better is likely to require more training and support for farmers, technology such as drones, which can assess soil health and GPS-guided machinery to limit soil compaction.
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