The Death of British Farmland?

Yesterday’s meeting of the Cross Party House of Common’s Agroecology Group discussed the potential for soil management practices to influence the future of farming in the UK. The session was chaired by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer and co- hosted by the Food Ethics Council.

Professor Mark Kibblewhite, Chair of Soil Science at Cranfield University, kicked off the session by scene setting the romantic attachment we have with soils – the smell of light rain on dry earth on a warm summer’s evening and then the reality that this smell is the result of a chemical secreted by soil organisms. He then went on to explain how the biological engine of the earth (the soil biology) utilising carbon as its fuel source drives key ecosystem functioning. But this vital resource is under threat with 25% of soils globally showing signs of significant degradation while the increasing pressure of food production and climate change will shrink these soil resources further. Soil contains some 2,500 gigatonnes of carbon which is 3 times that of the biogenic carbon in the atmosphere and yet currently the Government has no published soil strategy in place and is part of a minority group that is blocking the proposed European Soil Framework Directive. Professor Kibblewhite called on the UK Government to work progressively to adopt the EU framework and positively influence Europe in the interests of our own food security. He also identified the progressive sealing of soils through urbanisation as a major threat. The recently published much condensed draft National Planning Policy Framework makes little specific mention of the protection of soils for the delivery of food and other ecosystem services.

Dr Charlie Clutterbuck of the Food Ethics Council discussed the decline in the study and practice of agricultural sciences in the UK and the disconnect between consumer and supply.

Peter Melchett of the Soil Association drew the formal meeting to a close discussing the need to further our research base and understanding of soil processes in relation to management techniques. This is so that soil scientists can provide practical advice for land managers and not assume that this knowledge is built in to the system. He highlighted that the treatment of soils post war has been input driven and that now was the time to look at alternatives. He heavily supported the need for EU-level soil framework legislation.

This meeting was attended by MPs, NGOs and agronomic advisers along with Dr Kathryn Allton, Executive Officer and Mr Dick Thompson, Governance Trustee, of the British Society of Soil Science.

Blog post by Dr Kathryn Allton, Executive Officer, British Society of Soil Science