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Entitled Foundation of Food, the NFU’s new report highlights why good soil health is crucial to the nation’s farming systems and is essential to British food production.
The importance of soil health
In the report, the agriculture representation body explains the benefits healthy soil delivers in reducing flood risk, supporting wildlife habitats and biodiversity, and the sequestration and storage of carbon.
Despite soil playing such an important role in protecting future food production and the environment, “Worryingly, much of the UK’s agricultural soil is in desperate need of restoring by strengthening its health and vitality; having been subjected to intensive farming methods and agrochemical inputs for decades”, according to Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G).
As NFU vice president David Exwood explained, “Farmers are in the best position to continue work to support soil health and ensure it for the future. The importance of healthy soil to everyone cannot be underestimated. It underpins our productive farming systems, and delivers huge benefits for the environment, the farmed landscape and offers resilience to climate change.
Building on this, James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain, told Speciality Food, “Soil health is one of the pillars of a resilient and sustainable farming system and sector. By putting soil health at the top of the agenda, farmers can find ways to continue producing food while doing more to tackle climate nature emergencies. If we continue to push soil towards its tipping point, we risk our ability to do both.”
According to David, “Farmers are already doing fantastic work in protecting and managing their soil but the current fragility of our global food security has thrown food production into sharp focus. We need to look carefully at how we protect our number one asset – our soil.”
Roger Saul, founder of Sharpham Park, added, “Now more than ever, we need to collectively get this message out to retailers and consumers alike, so that we can continue to look after our landscape whilst simultaneously providing food security in times of huge uncertainty.”
The role of indies
Farmers aren’t the only ones needing to do the work when it comes to championing soil health. Independent retailers also need to be vigilant by visiting farms and ensuring their suppliers are looking after their soil through regenerative and organic techniques.
As James explains, “Independent food retailers can play their part by supplying from farms that are doing good work. This can be through certified organic produce, where trust is built into the system, or through close relationships with farmers where the retailer can tell the farmers’ story.”
According to Roger Kerr, “Many fine food retailers stock organic produce because this widely recognised standard ensures the integrity of our food. Organic also ensures the integrity of our soils.”
Roger Saul added, “We believe that producers need to work hand in hand with fine food retailers, and this comes from having a close and collaborative relationship. We also believe that retailers should visit all farms they procure from, to help build their understanding and awareness of how the farms operate and produce their food.”
Experts believe that in order to make real change and champion soil health, farmers require government involvement with incentives and schemes.
According to James, “It’s critical that the UK government continues to move farming support towards the ‘public money for public goods’ approach. This needs to include a ratcheting up of ambition on supporting the charge towards delivering on soil health and wider environmental outcomes through the Environmental Land Management schemes.
“We must also see a move in the way governmental support operates, towards a whole farm system approach.”
Roger Kerr also insisted that the government needs to simultaneously recognise the importance of promoting organic farming alongside soil health. He told Speciality Food, “OF&G continues to call for greater advocacy of organic within government’s evolving agricultural policy in recognition of organic’s delivery on soil health. Organic’s scientifically proven approach already exists within an established legislative framework, so to ignore or dismiss the proven benefits would be a fundamental error.”
Roger Saul added, “Way back in 2010, soil degradation was estimated to cost £1.2billion every year and intensive agriculture has caused arable soils to lose up to 60% of their organic carbon. Staggering! There are hundreds of farmers throughout the UK who have been looking after and promoting healthy soil, and yet their voice often gets lost in the noise of short-sighted policy and debate.”
This need for government assistance is why the NFU created the report, as David explained, “This report sets out our vision for a long-term, coordinated approach, which incentivises farmers for improving their soil and accounts for the needs of individual farm businesses. The new ELM scheme being rolled out includes soil.
“It now needs to evolve and address areas like nutrient management. It’s also vital new payment schemes fairly reward farmers for these public goods and enable them to enhance this vital work.”
He concluded, “By working together to better preserve and enhance this most valuable national resource, we can make progress towards our goal of net zero by 2040, continue delivering for the environment and allow our farmers to produce sustainable climate-friendly food well into the future.”