Countryside campaigners are calling for a “radical rethink” of farming practices and development in order to help regenerate the “precious commodity” that is soil.
A combination of “industrial farming practices, poor land management and damage from development” has created a “perfect storm” that has resulted in soil erosion, compaction and a loss of soil’s fertility.
That's according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), who say this degradation of soil costs around £1.2 billion a year in England and Wales alone.
The plea comes as the UN's ‘World Soil Day’ gets underway on Wednesday (5 December), with UK campaigners rallying for a recognition of the importance of soil and its impact on climate, environment and society.
The CPRE's new report, published on Monday (3 December), sets out ways to restore soil and new approaches to policy.
'Decades of neglect'
The report highlights that common farming techniques, such as inversion ploughing, as well as overgrazing and compaction from heavy machinery, has led to almost 3 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, which is more than one third of all of the UK’s arable land, the campaigners warn.
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 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,” he said.
Damage from development is also a major threat to health of England’s soils, according to the report.
Based on current annual rates of land lost to development, CPRE warns that 1,580km2 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 shows 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%) of all ‘waste’ buried in the same year was soil.
'Limit global temperature'
CPRE warns that, in order 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 UK soil.
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 improved farming practices and land use will be crucial in the UK's attempt to limit the effects of climate change, the report highlights.
If properly managed, soils could help to reduce the flooding and erosion that more frequent extreme weather could bring.
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 solutions that would reduce the degradation and loss of soil, and help to regenerate them 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 report says.
CPRE suggests specific policy measures that could support the scaling-up of these approaches, such as ensuring the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme is properly funded and incentivises farmers by rewarding them for protecting and regenerating soils.
The NFU has said that if the Government is to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’ then such schemes must “encourage productivity and build resilience” in businesses, as current direct payments play a “huge role” in underpinning farming businesses.