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.”
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.
The UK has a poor record in this area. The government has not been conducting regular soil monitoring since the last Countryside Survey in 2007, and in 2012 UK ministers helped block a critical EU soil health directive. Even a year ago, experts such as Peter Stevenson at Compassion in World Farming felt there was no real appetite for reform of intensive farming.
But environmentalists are now increasingly hopeful that, unlike his predecessors at Defra, Gove will take this issue seriously. In July he said that the UK would not move towards “US-style farming” and would prioritise “high environmental and animal welfare standards”. “There’s been quite a dramatic shift in understanding around what we’re doing to our soils,” said Browning. “Everyone is quite bowled over by some of the comments that Michael Gove is making.”
Source: The Guardian, 24 October, 2017