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Tuesday, 24 April 2018 10:12

UK soil loss means our descendants will struggle with future harvests and river quality

UK soil is being destroyed at 10 times the rate it is being created, costing £1.2 billion annually in England and Wales -  but only a fraction of the cost, £10 million pounds a year in England, is needed to ensure the agricultural sector is still productive at the end of the century, and this would reverse the declining health of our rivers, claim a coalition of interest groups.

Soil erosion  Angling Trustsmain copyThe new report, launched by WWF, the Angling Trust and the Rivers Trust, also argues that huge benefits could be generated for nature and society if farm subsidies were redirected to incentivising farmers to change land use in small areas of farmland.

Agriculture in the UK is responsible for £8 billion of GDP and employs almost half a million people, but the authors say it is at risk due to poor farming and land management practices. WWF research has also shown that up to a third of farmers may be non-compliant with England's current water protection legislation. This has been made worse by lack of enforcement; new data found that the Environment Agency's current resources only allow for visits to less than 1% of farms each year.

According to the report, the estimated costs of rolling out effective enforcement in England, to prevent soil erosion and pollution of watercourses, would initially be £5.8m per year, but this would decrease after the first five years. Achieving a mere 0.5% reduction in soil degradation costs would cover this and would pay for a "two strikes" model which includes proactive – rather than reactive - checking of farms; issuing warnings and offering advice to correct problems; and following up with sanctions and prosecutions for failure to address issues.

It says that creating a properly funded, locally coordinated advice service is critical to help farmers implement rules and manage the environment. It is estimated that increased advisory presence in England would cost £3.2 million per year.

Tony Juniper, Executive Director of WWF commented: "Healthy soil is vital for our national security, yet we continue to cause immense damage to it, not only threatening our long term food supply but also harming our rivers and wildlife. None of this is inevitable though.

Farmer knowledge exchange event Salle Estate Norfolk  Archant Norfolk copy"We could have a farming system that restores soils and wildlife, while at the same time stopping agricultural run-off polluting our rivers. To do this we need not only the right legislation, however, but also robust enforcement and proper advice for farmers, otherwise new policies simply won't work. The good news is that this will cost only about 10 million pounds a year."

The UK Government has already signalled its intention to phase out direct payments to farmers and move to a new land management usage system where public money is put towards the provision of public goods. If small areas changed their use then it could deliver a number of benefits for nature and society.

The report estimates that payments to fully reimburse farmers for changing land-use on small areas would cost less than £500m per year in England. The current £2 billion CAP subsidy for England would easily provide for this, and leave significant room for investment in other environmental objectives and farm business productivity.

These recommendations are just some of the nine key steps needed to reverse the damage that poor land use and improper farming techniques are doing to UK soils.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal said: "We have had fine words acknowledging the very serious problem of soil loss and agricultural pollution in both the government's 25 year Environment Plan and the current Food and Farming White Paper. But warm words are no substitute for action and this report shows how the government really could make good on its promise to use public payments for public good to safeguard future food production and reverse current declines in fish and other wildlife that depend on healthy, unpolluted waterways."

Soil erosion after heavy rain  Richard Smith Environment Agency copyThe report highlights the significant cost savings associated with investing in enforcement, advice, and incentives for land-use change and advice. At the moment the UK currently spends £3billion on agricultural subsidies.

Arlin Rickard, Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust commented: "This report speaks directly to the government's current consultation, Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit, and sets out in stark terms the reality on many farms, together with environmental failings under the current system. In the future we must properly support our farmers with the guidance, incentives and funding necessary, not only to produce food to the highest standard, but also the vital ecosystem services that support community health and well-being and underpins sustainable socio economic development."

The report's contributors point out the UK Government is currently consulting on the future of farming after we leave the European Union. This, they say, presents a unique opportunity to shape the future of UK farming, land use and soil protection, ensuring that future generations have good quality soil and water.