More must be done to protect Norfolk’s most important natural resource, says CPRE
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Soil must be placed 'at the heart of the environmental agenda' with more efforts needed to regenerate a resource damaged by intensive farming, erosion and development, a campaign group has warned.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) outlines the threats facing this valuable land resource in a new report, named Back to the Land: Rethinking Our Approach to Soil, which was launched ahead of World Soil Day on December 5.
It says industrial farming practices, poor land management and damage from development have contributed to soil being eroded, compacted and losing fertility.
Failing to take action could 'squander an irreplaceable and priceless natural resource', the report says, as well as risking 'food shortage, even famine, flood, polluted waters, declining nature and greater costs, inefficiencies and waste'.
Inversion ploughing, overgrazing and compaction from heavy machinery has led to almost three million tonnes of topsoil being eroded every year across the UK, the CPRE said.
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The publication sets out recommendations including rethinking farming practices, focusing more on conservation agriculture, agroforestry, pasture-based livestock farming and farming on rewetted peatlands.
Chris Dady, chairman of CPRE Norfolk, said soil could be considered the county's most important natural resource and a 'two-pronged' approach was needed to protect it.
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While individual farmers should employ new machinery and cultivation practices that were kinder to the soils, he said the government needed to legislate to ensure on-farm environmental measures are financially supported, and food prices remain profitable – particularly given the impending changes in farm policy and international trade after Brexit, including the phasing out of the EU's land-based direct subsidies.
'I think we are at a critical point,' he said. 'Our soil is probably our key natural resource in Norfolk, as we don't have coal or oil.
'It needs a multi-faceted approach to reverse this situation. Certainly the rhetoric from the government is now more about the environment and how we look after our land, not only for farming, but for wildlife and the environment in general. The government has taken a step in the right direction, but there is also the question of how we allow farmers to manage their soil. That is very key for farming in the East.
'We have previously seen the culture of farmers being subsidised to do the right things, but the subsidies have not necessarily gone to the right place. If food becomes cheaper and farmers get less money they can do less and less for the environment.
'You cannot blame farmers for dealing with their business in a way that allows them to make a profit. If the price they get for their produce is more realistic then farmers should be able to do more for the environment.'
The report also says soils 'can and must' be part of the solution to the 'overwhelming threat facing the countryside and our current agricultural model: climate change'.
The CPRE urged politicians to 'place a firm goal' to stop soil degradation by 2030, and set a new goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 2050.
Last week, environment secretary Michael Gove launched a wide-ranging new report into how climate change will affect the UK, which included a plan for farmers to receive payments for things like planting cover crops to protect soil and planting trees on agricultural land.
A Defra spokesman said: 'The environment secretary has been very clear we will take the action required to ensure our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges the changing climate brings.
'Defra's 25-Year Environment Plan reaffirmed our commitment to improve the health of our soils by 2030 and future agriculture policy will incentivise sustainable farming practices that improve the health and fertility of our soils.
'World Soil Day is a reminder to us all of the importance of making sure we have healthy soils for food production and to ensure the best natural environment for wildlife.'
The CPRE report outlines a series of 'threats' to soils, both in the UK and across the world. They include:
• Between 42-78 billion tonnes of carbon have been lost from soils globally over the past century due to degradation, mostly emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.
• One third of UK soils are thought to be degraded, with 1 million hectares – 36% of all arable land – estimated to be at risk of erosion.
• Up to 2.9 million tonnes of topsoil are estimated to be lost to wind and water erosion annually in the UK.
• Of over 1.4 million hectares of peatland in England, less than 1% remains undamaged.
• In England and Wales the total estimated organic carbon loss from the soil each year is 5.3 million tonnes, or on average 0.6% of the existing soil carbon content.
• 21.69 million tonnes of soil were sent to UK landfill sites in 2014 – representing 45% of all buried 'waste'.
• The use of undeveloped land for building in England has more than tripled from 4,500ha per year in the 2000s to 15,800ha (2013-2017).
• At current rates, the CPRE says more than 1% of England's land will be converted into 'built development' each decade – an area larger than Greater London.