Farmers need right incentives to stop soil degradation, experts say

A global crisis in soil degradation can be averted by offering incentives and support to farmers as they switch to more sustainable practices, a panel of soil experts has concluded.

As much as 40% of the world’s land is now degraded according to recent UN data, which if not resolved could damage food production and biodiversity and threaten to derail climate mitigation efforts as well as cause mass migration.

Healthy soils are packed with biodiversity and support all life on Earth. Just a handful of soil contains more organisms than humans on the planet.

Humans around the world have reduced the organic matter in soils through unsustainable practices, making them less fertile and weakening their ability to store carbon.

In the UK, arable soils have lost about 40-60% of their organic carbon through intensive agriculture according to the Environment Agency and, in 2010, soil degradation was calculated to be costing £1.2 billion every year.

At a roundtable discussion in December, set up by the Save Soil movement, experts from the UN agreed that farmers need to be supported in switching to more sustainable practices.

They suggested three options: certification, where consumers pay more for sustainable soil management as with organically-produced food; state subsidies for farmers adopting sustainable practices; and carbon trading.

Professor Rosa Maria Poch, chair of the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, said: “We must shift from management that is merely using the soil to management that has the soil as the main focus.

Countryside stock
Incentives should be given for using sustainable farming practices, not just fulfilling metrics, Dr Simon Jeffery says (Danny Lawson/PA)

“For that, society needs to have a better knowledge of what soils are and what they do.

“Besides soil awareness, countries must carry out detailed soil surveys to know the soils they have. If we don’t know our soils, we won’t be able to manage this precious resource according to their potential.”

The UK Government already pays farmers to test soils and increase their organic matter through the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme.

But Dr Simon Jeffery, a soil ecologist at Harper Adams University, said farmers should be paid for adopting general sustainable practices rather than meeting specific metrics.

At some point, he said, farmers will not be able to add any more organic matter into the soil.

He added: “They’re actually going to be penalised compared to somebody who’s been pulverising their soil and beating it to death, or their benchmarks are really low. They’ve got loads of space to build it up.

“Worst case scenario you might actually get somebody who’s a bit cynical, who has been managing their soils saying, well, this isn’t fair, I’m gonna go out and plough my soils, knock my benchmark down as much as I can and that way I can earn money for building them up again. That to me seems crazy.”

The National Farmers’ Union’s environment forum chair, Richard Bramley, said: “It has always been one of the problems that if you’re already on this track and you have undertaken an awful lot of work to improve soils, to improve biodiversity, the landscape you’re managing, you can find it quite hard to access support that’s there to make those changes because you’ve already made them.

“Soil is the absolute bedrock of our business and most good farmers have recognised that for years and have been undertaking work to improve their soil.

“Incentives from Governments are going to very much form a key pillar of that.

“We need investments on farms, in technology, in people to undertake measurement work and to help advise and in products that support a more cyclical use of nutrients from organic sources.”