Over the past 60 years, we’ve seen a dramatic change in farming practices and land use choices, driven principally by high intensity production of cheap food and European subsidies. This has led to the soils on which we depend for food throughout England and Wales becoming damaged and eroded, causing widespread pollution and flooding. Agriculture is now responsible for the highest number of serious pollution incidents of any sector, and is the main reason why only 14% of rivers are in good health.
Bare fields of maize, stubble turnips, over-grazed pasture, slurry spreading and winter-wheat have all led to vast amounts of soil, nutrients and water washing off the land, into rivers and lakes. This has a disastrous impact on aquatic wildlife because it smothers insects and fish eggs in gravels on river beds and leads to algal blooms that deplete oxygen in the water. It also heaps costs on the rest of society. Government research estimates the costs of poorly-managed soil to be £1.2 billion each year, or £23 million a week. We are losing soil at around ten times the rate that it is being produced, which is fundamentally unsustainable.
By contrast, healthy soils have high organic matter content, a strong, porous structure and a wide range of soil organisms including worms, fungi and bacteria that work symbiotically with plants to produce more nutritious food and lock up carbon underground. They allow water to filter downwards, replenishing groundwater storage, and keep rivers flowing in summer droughts.
Of course we have to keep on farming, but we do need to change farm practices significantly to save our soils and rescue our rivers for future generations. Simple measures like minimising soil disturbance, sowing rows across the slope, planting follow-on crops to avoid bare fields, reducing stocking densities and slurry quantities can all make a dramatic difference. In high-risk areas (probably less than 10% of the area of a catchment) land-use change will be needed, such as switching from arable to pasture or pasture to woodland.
There have been initiatives such as Catchment Sensitive Farming which have offered advice to farmers and land managers. These have been a step in the right direction but have largely failed at a strategic scale. Too often they’ve worked with farmers who are most receptive to change, rather than those who are causing the biggest problems. Uncertainty about budgets, inappropriate targets and a lack of clear objectives has led to high staff turnover and an incoherent approach.
Most importantly, advice hasn’t been backed up by a credible enforcement regime. The government has directed the Environment Agency and Rural Payments Agency to take a light touch approach to enforcement, and has slashed budgets to a point where the Environment Agency is now able to visit less than 1% of farms each year. The many farmers who are following the rules are exasperated to see their neighbours cutting corners and getting away with it.
The government has at last recognised these strategic failures, and is running a consultation about the future of farming in advance of an agriculture bill. The Angling Trust, WWF and The Rivers Trust have teamed up to write a report setting out a pathway towards a more sustainable future for land and water.
Achieving fundamental change across more than 100,000 farms in England and Wales will require a co-ordinated approach with four complementary measures:
- Alignment to a clear set of objectives and planning process in each catchment by all relevant organisations, co-ordinated by the Catchment Based Approach network
- Firm but fair enforcement by the Environment Agency of existing and new regulations to outlaw excessive soil erosion, water run-off and pollution
- Local, well-trained, expert advisors providing free, advice targeted at higher risk landowners
- Targeted incentives to enable land use change in high risk areas of the catchment (probably less than 10% of land area)
The Government intends to phase out direct payments to farmers and move to a new system where public money will only be granted if public benefit can be demonstrated. Our report estimates that to reimburse farmers fully for changing land-use in England would cost less than £500m per year out of the £2.3 billion subsidy currently paid in England and Wales.
We estimate that enforcement and advice will cost just £10 million a year – a fraction of the cost to society of continuing with our current approach. This is a no-brainer of epic proportions that could transform the state of our natural environment rapidly and ensure that we have food and water for the next generation.
Read the report for more information on how we can save our soils.