Investing in soil 'key to providing health crops in future', says NFU report

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Published: 8:15 AM July 16, 2022

UK farmers have highlighted the importance of investing in soils to provide sustainable food production into the future.

West Suffolk organic farmer John Pawsey is among the case studies contained in a national report by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

The NFU’s Foundation of Food study  looks at why good soil health is crucial to the nation’s farming systems and essential to British food production.  

Healthy soil reduces flood risk, supports wildlife habitats and biodiversity, and stores carbon, it says.

It welcomes a focus on soil health contained in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) first Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM) called the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) which provides incentives to maintain and conserve soil structure. The NFU is also calling for grant schemes to encourage the uptake of technology which boosts productivity through reduced soil compaction and erosion.

Mr Pawsey, of Shimpling Hall Farm, near Bury St Edmunds said he had seen organic matter in his soils rise from 2.9% to 5.5% over a period of 20 years since going organic.

“There are benefits for soil health from organic farming, which alternates leguminous plants that help build soil fertility with “cash” crops,” he says.

“Leguminous plants increase the amount of nitrogen and carbon while allowing a period without cultivation, which helps stabilise soil structure. The fertility building crops are then usually buried or recycled along with weeds by ploughing or livestock grazing.

“It is an essential part of the process, breaking down plant material to release nutrients to benefit the subsequent crops.”

Regenerative farming methods including managed livestock grazing, cover crops, reduced tillage cultivations and use of hedges and trees in the landscape can all help with soil biology and structure, he adds.

NFU vice president David Exwood said: “Farmers are in the best position to continue work to support soil health and ensure it for the future. The importance of healthy soils to everyone cannot be underestimated. It underpins our productive farming systems, and delivers huge benefits for the environment, the farmed landscape and offers resilience to climate change.

“Farmers are already doing fantastic work in protecting and managing their soil but with the current fragility of our global food security, it has thrown food production into sharp focus. We need to look carefully at how we protect our number one asset – our soil.  

“This report sets out our vision for a long-term, coordinated approach, which incentivises farmers for improving their soil and accounts for the needs of individual farm businesses. The new ELM programme being rolled out includes soil. It now needs to evolve and address areas like nutrient management. It’s also vital new payment schemes fairly reward farmers for these public goods and enable them to enhance this vital work.

“By working together to better preserve and enhance this most valuable national resource, we can make progress towards our goal of net zero by 2040, continue delivering for the environment and allow our farmers to produce sustainable climate-friendly food well into the future.”