In an extraordinary coup, farmers’ unions and the UK government have torpedoed the European soil framework directive.
“British soils are reaching crisis point.” Don’t take my word for it – this is a quote from a loyal friend of the farming industry, Farmers’ Weekly.
You would expect farmers to try to protect their soils, which are the foundations of their livelihood, and many do. There are some excellent farmers in Britain, careful, well-informed and always thinking of the future.
But across large areas of land, short-termism now triumphs over common sense. Farmers are often in debt to the banks, and seek to clear that debt as quickly as they can. Many are growing crops that are simply incompatible with protecting the soil. Some don’t seem to know very much about soil erosion and why it happens. Others – especially contract farmers working on other people’s land – don’t seem to care.
Sensible land use is giving way to smash-and grab-exploitation.
I always flinch at the name given to soil in the US: dirt. Here there’s a similar conflation: something dirty is said to have been soiled.
But soil is a remarkable substance, a delicately-structured cushion between rock and air, formed from thousands of years of physical and biological processes. It supports an ecosystem that turns unusable materials into plant food, it stores carbon, filters water and protects us from floods. Oh, and there’s the small consideration that without it we would starve. It is, as it takes so long to re-form once it is lost, effectively non-renewable.
Yet this great gift of nature is being squandered at a horrifying rate. One study suggests that soil in Devon is being lost at the rate of five tonnes per hectare per year. There are several reasons for this, mostly to do with bad practice, but the problem has been exacerbated by an increase in the cultivation of maize.
Like the growing of potatoes, maize cultivation with conventional methods in this country is a perfect formula for ripping the soil off the land, as the ground is ploughed deeply then left almost bare for several months. A study in south-west England suggests that the soil structure has broken down in 75% of the maize fields there.