Farmers must be incentivised to tackle decline in biodiversity, says environment secretary at launch of parliamentary soil body
The UK is 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility” in parts of the country, the environment secretary Michael Gove has warned.
“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth,” Gove told the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA). “Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.
“If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.”
Arguing that farmers needed to be incentivised to tackle both the loss of soil fertility and the decline in biodiversity, Gove said that he hoped the SSA, a new body formed with the mission of bringing UK soils back to health within one generation, would hold the government to account and bring him ideas and inspiration. “We are listening to you now and it’s critical that we do so.”
Gove’s speech on Monday afternoon came as UK farmers anxiously wait to see if Brexit will take them out of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and if so, what will take its place. Defra is currently working on a new agricultural bill and is simultaneously drawing up a 25-year environmental plan. Gove promised both would reflect the concerns of the SSA.
There has been a spike in awareness of the impact that intensive farming techniques are having on the world’s soils and its biodiversity. In 2014 Sheffield University researchers said that UK farm soils only had 100 harvests left in them, and a year later a UN spokesperson warned that at current rates of degradation, the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years. “It feels as if soil is now a hot topic,” said Helen Browning, head of the Soil Association. Meanwhile a new German study has revealed that numbers of flying insects have fallen by up to three quarters. Intensive farming techniques that encourage the heavy use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are believed to be major factors in these problems.