Soil incentive pitfalls

Critics say soil quality is difficult to measure

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Agricultural experts who believe soil quality is critical for the UK’s food supply have welcomed the government’s decision to pay farmers to improve it for the first time. But concerns remain over how soil quality will be assessed and the mechanism for paying farmers.

Following Brexit, Britain is phasing out the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy farm subsidies and replacing them with the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, to be introduced next year.

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the SFI is “centred around incentivising sustainable farming practices alongside profitable food production and rewarding farmers for producing public goods such as better air and water quality, protecting wildlife and improving soil health”.

Compaction and erosion

The plans are part of the government’s 25-year Environment Plan, which includes a net zero carbon ambition.

Soil quality and biodiversity supports agricultural production and the storage of carbon. But almost 4 million hectares of soil in England and Wales are at risk of compaction, according to the Environment Agency, and 2 million hectares are at risk of erosion.

Intensive agriculture has caused arable soils to lose 40-60 per cent of their organic carbon, said the Environment Agency in July. But it added that there is insufficient data on soil health and called for investment in monitoring.

From next year, farmers can sign up to SFI schemes to improve arable and horticultural soils at payments between £30 and £59 per hectare and grassland soils at £6-£8 per hectare. According to a Defra spokesperson: “Healthy soil is key to supporting our targets on the environment and improving farm profitability. Well managed soils can lead to increased biodiversity, increased carbon sequestration and storage, improved water quality and flood prevention.”

Food scientist Charlie Clutterbuck, an academic and author who holds a PhD in soil ecology, welcomed the government’s newfound commitment to monitoring soil quality. But he said that should begin with “an England-wide measurement of soil carbon”, investment in more research facilities and a legally binding commitment to improving soil quality.

Clutterbuck has calculated that Britain, which currently imports half its food, could reduce this to around 25-30 per cent through better land management and soil content. In turn, many countries that currently export to Britain could begin to grow food for their own people, many of whom go hungry.

“We need that better soil to produce more local produce to regenerate rural communities and not fund carbon offset schemes that benefit the City,” added Clutterbuck.

Government promises

SFI will be phased in over seven years, while in the next three years farmers will lose half their former EU subsidies. They mean more to smaller northern hill farmers, earning around £25,000 annually, than larger farmers on the richer plains in the south and east. Some farmers, many of whom have farmed for generations, are being offered incentives to quit the land.

Critics say this is at odds with Boris Johnson’s promise, made in 2016 at a cattle market in Clitheroe, that farmers would get the same amount of money – “100% guaranteed” – from subsidies after leaving the EU, while being relieved of red tape.

The first SFI schemes will start next spring but, according to environmental law expert Richard Smith, “few farmers have signed up to the new programme”. Farmers’ have low trust in Defra due to its previous management of agricultural subsidies.

A Defra spokesperson said it was planning a “comprehensive programme of soil monitoring across farms participating in the early roll-out. The first stage will be establishing a baseline for a range of soil health indicators.”

The spokesperson added: “There is a wealth of expertise in soil health within the UK including scientists from the University of Lancaster and UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.”

 Photo: Richard Laidler/Alamy

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