World Soil Day: Farmers urged to help halt soil pollution

Farmers and land managers are being urged to take urgent steps to stop soil pollution on farms as part of World Soil Day.

The theme for this year’s World Soil Day, organised by the United Nations, is “Be the solution to soil pollution”. To mark the day, farmers will be tweeting about the day using the hashtag #StopSoilPollution.

According to the UN, one third of global soils are already degraded and there are only 60 years of viable topsoil left in the world.

See also: Advice on reducing soil erosion in arable fields

Agricultural land use is expected to peak between 2040 and 2060, with the global population forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. However, scientists have estimated that fertile soils are being lost at a rate of 24 billion tonnes a year, largely due to unsustainable farming practices.

A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Sheffield warned that there may be only 100 harvests left in the UK due to soil depletion brought on by intensive farming.

Defra secretary Michael Gove has also warned that some parts of the UK are 30-40 years away from “fundamental eradication of soil fertility”. He has indicated that measures and targets to improve the health of soils will be brought in under the Agriculture Bill after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019.

In September, Defra released its policy statement for agriculture over the next 10 years, which contains numerous references to a need to restore and maintain soil health.

On soil erosion and depletion, the document states: “The success of agriculture in the UK depends upon healthy soils – while healthy soils have both private and public benefits, poor soil management can increase soil erosion and compaction.

“Soil erosion puts pressure on rivers through increased sediment runoff and nitrate and phosphate pollution. Compacted soils have a reduced rate of water infiltration causing a higher flood risk.

“Soil erosion and compaction from agriculture was estimated to impose an external cost in Wales and England of £305m in 2010. In addition, over 70% of the UK’s peatland is in poor condition, affecting its ability to sequester carbon, support biodiversity and mitigate the impact of flooding.”

See also: Tips on assessing the health of your soil

To mark World Soil Day, Defra is urging farmers and land managers to seek free advice from Catchment Sensitive Farming officers on how to improve soil health on their land. These techniques include no-till drilling which avoids disturbing the soils and helps to improve organic matter.

Many farmers and land managers are already signed up to Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship schemes in England which aim to deliver benefits for nature, including better soil management.

The next application window for Countryside Stewardship is expected to open in early 2019, with the simpler “wildlife offers” for arable, upland, lowland grazing and mixed farmers all available online.  

The NFU said farmers are already doing great work to conserve and enhance our soils all while producing food. 

NFU environment forum chairman Mark Pope said: “Farmers have carried out extensive work to benefit soil such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, using new technology like low-impact machinery and livestock farmers using tracks to access grazing fields from multiple entry points to reduce poaching.

“As a new domestic agricultural policy is developed, the NFU would like to see options for improving soil health included in future environmental land management schemes in order for farmers to continue their good work conserving and enhancing our soils.”

Meanwhile, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has called for a “radical rethink” of farming practices and soil management to help regenerate soils that underpin our food supply and the environment.

Rethinking our approach

A CPRE report, published on Monday (3 December), “Back to the land: rethinking our approach to soil”, found that intensive farming practices, such as inversion ploughing, overgrazing and compaction from heavy machinery, had led to almost three million tonnes of topsoil being eroded every year across the UK.

Five ways to help achieve sustainable soils

  1. Conservation Agriculture Aims to restore soil health and build up organic matter, biodiversity and fertility by shifting from traditional ploughing to min- or zero-till techniques. Ground cover and planting cover crops can also build soil fertility.
  2. Agroforestry Trees protect soils from erosion in three main ways. First, they provide shelter from wind, sun and rain. Second, they add valuable organic matter to the soil through leaf litter which is drawn down and decomposed by soil organisms. And third, tree roots help stabilise soils and improve infiltration of water.
  3. Pasture-based livestock farming The UK climate and soil is ideal for producing grass. Pasture-fed systems rely on ruminants – typically sheep and cattle – that can thrive on grass and species of wildflowers and herbs to produce high quality meat and milk. PBLF covers and protects the soil. Animal manures and plant roots enable soil fertility and organic matter to build.
  4. Paludiculture From the Latin palus for swamp, this is the productive use of wetland areas in ways that preserve their peat. Current practice means lowland peat-based soils may eventually degrade down to mineral soils, with serious damage to their quality and what can be grown in them. Paludiculture could help retain such soils in long-term productive use as well as protecting deeper remaining layers of peat.
  5. Soils and built development Building on undeveloped land usually involves changes to the soil as well as a fundamental change of use. Sites should be tested to select those that have the lowest environmental value so that, if used, development will cause the least environmental damage.

Source: CPRE

See also: Five expert tips for maximising soil health