10 January 2000
‘Intensive farming has wrecked soil’

By FWi staff

INTENSIVE agriculture has left soils so impoverished that in some areas they are now too fragile to grow arable crops, claims a prominent agriculture scientist.

Continuous arable farming reduces the organic matter in soils, leaving them more susceptible to erosion, says Professor David Poulson, head of soil research at the Institute of Arable Crop Research in Hertfordshire.

Prof Poulson told the BBC Radio Fours Costing the Earth programme that the North and South Downs in southern England, parts of the West Midlands, and the Welsh borders, were most at risk.

He said: “I think perhaps in the worst areas probably the only sensible alternative is not to do arable farming.

“In the long run, we have to look at taking areas that are prone to severe physical damage out of, certainly, arable production.”

Prof Poulson is also concerned at the accumulation in soil of heavy metals like zinc, cadmium and copper from the dumping of commercial and industrial waste, such as sewage sludge.

He said that 90% of those metals stayed in the soil “virtually forever” and could have a bad effect on soil microbes.

Another scientist, Dick Thompson, of the Soil Survey and Land Research Centre at Silsoe in Bedfordshire, also voiced his fears on the programme.

He said some farming soils were beginning to lose their productivity. They were simply organo-mineral mixes of sand, silt and clay, he said, and seemed to have no life in them.

Mr Thompson is also concerned that less than 1 million is spent annuallly monitoring what is happening to the soil.

In contrast, several tens of millions is spent monitoring air and water quality.