Some of Britain’s most productive farming areas are under threat because of deteriorating soil quality.

The stark warning is contained in a report released by the Royal Society of England, which blames heavy machinery, drier summers and a changing climate for endangering crop production in key areas including the east of England.

Lead author Dick Godwin said: “British agriculture is in real danger of abusing its most precious asset, the soil on which it produces the grass for livestock and the crops for food and energy that are now in such keen demand by a burgeoning population both at home and abroad.”

Practical research that would provide practical answers for farmers was desperately needed to help reverse the trend.

The report said that the UK’s soil and water research base had diminished catastrophically from its peak and was now failing to provide the required support for the nation’s farmers and land managers.

“Soil science departments have closed around the country,” Prof Godwin said. “Key scientists have left to go abroad or retired. Postgraduate work has all but disappeared.

“Unless we reverse that trend, the work will no longer be done that is needed to get our soils in top condition and keep them there.”

“The immediate future requires concentration on good practical knowledge and technology transfer rather than blue sky research. But that knowledge needs to be communicated by advisers with a good, understanding of agricultural and environmental needs.”

He called for a change in national policy, which was currently predominantly environment-driven, to one which concentrated on production, albeit within an environmentally sensitive framework.

Other report findings

  • The industry needs to provide more than £1m a year for a five-year period to stem the decline in available professionals.
  • An extra £300,000 is needed to train doctoral engineers and applied soil physicists over the same period.
  • A further fund of £20,000 to £30,000 a year would help supplement funding of undergraduate and postgraduate students.
  • Create a National Centre of Excellence for Soil and Water Management, and encourage the development of research, training and professional accreditation at existing establishments.