5 ways government policy can encourage soil-first farming

A lack of soil protection legislation has been a “catastrophic failure” by politicians, allowing costly degradation to continue relatively unabated until today, according to Reading University’s Chris Collins.

European water and air framework directives have done much to clean up inland and coastal waters and the air we breathe since passing into EU law.

However, soils have been largely ignored by legislators, with Germany and the UK taking some of the blame after voting against a draft “Soil Framework Directive” because of the massive potential cost of cleaning up contaminated industrial land.

See also: Advice on reducing soil erosion in arable fields

Prof Chris Collins heads the Soil Security Programme, a £20m project aimed at informing future policy with better understanding of how soils respond to climate change and different management practices.

He said this undervaluing of soils has led to their significant degradation, reportedly costing the UK economy about £1.2bn/year by 2009 through erosion, compaction, loss of soil carbon and diffuse pollution.

So, with a future soils policy yet to be finalised, what do industry experts and farmers think should be included? 

1. Payment schemes to boost production, not just environment

Farming unions in Scotland, England and Wales want to see policies introduced that not only incentivise environmental gains such as improved soils, but also boost productivity post-Brexit.

NFUS policy director Jonnie Hall pointed out that the Scottish government has challenged its food and drink sector to double turnover from £14.5bn to £30bn by 2030.

Scotland also has the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75% in the same timeframe, paving the way to being carbon neutral by 2045 – and agriculture will play a major role.

Mr Hall said under the current area-based CAP payment scheme, achieving these goals will be impossible, as it has stifled innovation, productivity and resilience within Scottish and UK as a whole. It has also done very little for the farmed environment and soil health.

“We need to take this opportunity post-Brexit to move away from the CAP and instead of basing a payment system on areas of land, it should be on how that land is managed and what it is delivering to the consumer and the environment.

“The industry needs to make the case as to why investment – not support – will allow it to deliver on what the Scottish government and society wants in terms of outcomes,” said Mr Hall.

In the south, vice-president Guy Smith said the NFU accepts the principle of moving to more environmentally sensitive agricultural policies, but is wary of it becoming completely dominant at the expense of productivity.

He would like to see a new grant system that encourages the uptake of expensive technology, which will not only boost productivity through better resource management, but also help achieve environmental goals such as improving soil health.

2. Incentivise agroecology for better soil health

Associate director of farming and land use at the Soil Association Liz Bowles says the organisation would like to see growers encouraged to transition to “agroecological” farming systems.

A French study that modelled a 10-year transition to agroecological farming, which attempts to work with nature in a balanced way, found it could produce enough food to feed the population, while maintaining export capacity.

Furthermore, it could see a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and help boost biodiversity and protect natural resources such as soil.

Ms Bowles added that some of these outcomes could be achieved by reducing food waste and consuming less intensively produced meat and dairy, but with only a very marginal reduction in grazing livestock numbers.

In arable systems, reducing soil compaction, returning organic matter to soils, and more diverse crop rotations that include legumes to reduce the reliance on synthetic fertilisers are all key components and will significantly benefit soil health.

“It is about making much better use of [local] resources rather than always bringing in new resources, which caused some in unintended consequences within our current systems,” she added.

3. Introduce a carbon trading framework

Agriculture can play a major role in climate change mitigation and Cambridgeshire grower Stephen Briggs believes a domestic carbon trading framework can help deliver this crucial service.

Studies have shown that a 2% increase in soil organic carbon can go a long way to reversing global carbon losses and any future soils policy should encourage farmers to adopt practices that help to achieve this goal.

This could be reductions in tillage or no-till farming, use of organic manures and cover crops, planting trees or establishing more grassland.

Mr Briggs says increasing soil organic matter by 2% may take a decade or so and farmers need the right options, rewards and guidance available quickly to make it happen and assist in carbon sequestration.

“We’re in a position at the moment where we have next to no guidance or confused guidance on this, and I think the quicker that we can get a domestic agricultural plan together to give us that, the better.”

4. Incentivise controlled traffic farming 

Soil compaction caused by machinery is extremely damaging to soil health and productivity and a simple solution is confining farm machinery to permanent traffic lanes in a controlled traffic farming (CTF) system.

Key factors that have resulted in slow uptake of CTF in the UK include the increased time and management effort to convert into the system.

Perhaps the biggest factor, though, is cost. To take this out of the equation, CTF Europe’s Tim Chamen believes that farmers should be incentivised to convert to a system that has been proven around the world for many years to improve soils.

When grower and agronomist Steve Larocque, who farms at Three Hills in Alberta, Canada, realised that up to 70% of the difference between potential and actual yields was down to abiotic stresses such as drought, waterlogging or poor nutrient availability, he decided to change his farming practices. 

For very low cost, he modified existing machinery to work in a 9m CTF system and soon saw improvements in soils structure, with good physical structure vital in getting the chemical and biological components of soils working effectively.

Combined with a no-till drill, this has built resilience into Mr Larocque’s soils, which are now capable of dealing with 15cm of water in just 1 minute 26 seconds.

This means he has been able to harvest crops when neighbours in random traffic systems can’t, and can usually get drilling again within 24 hours of heavy rain.

In addition to dealing with large amounts of water, his soils are also more resilient to drought and combined with no-till and cutting stubbles long at harvest, help to combat the effects of extreme cold, extreme heat and wind in the unpredictable Alberta climate.

5. Develop all-encompassing cover crop policies

Any policy that encourages the use of cover crops in arable systems must account for the challenges faced by some growers in using them effectively.

Farmer Colin McGregor attempted to establish a cover crop demonstration trial for visitors to his Scottish Borders farm on 16 September, but all plots struggled to get away due to extreme wet weather and slug pressure.

This highlights the challenges faced when growing cover crops in the northern half of the UK, with a very small window to get them up and away before the weather breaks.

In Scotland, the Agri-Environment Climate scheme currently pays farmers for establishing green manures in the autumn up to October but is largely seen as a box-ticking exercise to meet greening requirements.

In reality, cover crops need to be established by 10 September to maximise their benefit in the north, which increases an already busy autumn workload, requires adequate machinery capacity and increases costs.

Mr McGregor believes that any future financial incentives would need to reflect this increased burden on his business for cover crops to be viable on his farm.

Although cover crops are now widely accepted to be a key tool in helping to improve soil health, this highlights that a prescriptive, one size fits all approach across Scotland and other part of the UK will not be suitable.

Farmers Weekly and our Soils in Practice 2019 sponsors are committed to protecting and improving soil health for the UK’s next generation of farmers and beyond. An important part of this commitment is putting accurate expert information in the hands of those who can make use of it to improve the soil back on their own farms.

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Experts were speaking at Farmers Weekly‘s Soils in Practice 2019 events at Coldstream in the Scottish Borders and near Duxford, Cambridgeshire.

Thanks to Yara, Agrovista and RAGT for their sponsorship, which enabled us to run the events. Farmers Weekly had complete editorial control of this report.