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World Soils Day: when is good soil management a public good?

Martin Lines, Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, discusses where the line should be drawn between soil as a private good and soil as a public good.

December 2020

As a farmer in Cambridgeshire, soil health is key to my business viability, likewise for farmers throughout England.

Across the country, there are many different soil types and farming situations that give uniqueness to every farming business. Many farmers in the past and still some today, haven’t always respected the soils as well as they should have and we can see many examples of soil bad practice.

Over recent years, many farmers have started to look at what's going on below ground with as much detail as we see above ground in the crops and grass they grow. On my farm we recognised the soil damage and compaction we had been causing over the years. Consequently, we have now moved away from cultivation and moving the soil with steel and ever increasing horse power and larger tractors.

Now we use a cover crop and its roots to improve soil health and capture nutrients in the soil leftover from the past crop to prevent them from leaving our soil when left bare. We can also use this cover to grow plants that can fix nitrogen into their roots allowing less fertilizer to be used in the next crop. We are seeing increasing numbers of farmers changing their farming techniques to help protect their soil but these methods are completely different to how many have farmed in the past.

As policymakers and government begin to recognise the importance of soil as a public benefit we are seeing future farming policy that will reward it as a public good.

Whilst soil is a private asset, it also can deliver public benefits and is a public good. Our future food security depends on us having soil that can produce our food for generations to come. Under future ELM payments, farmers can be supported to enable soil to capture and store more carbon, hold more water and deliver many other public benefits.

Through the support of ELM, farmers can transition to new practices and deliver an increased public benefit. Through ELM, we could see a transition payment for planting of cover crops, for say five years, while the farming business restructures and understands how to use these new methods in their farming practices.

We could see future payments for delivering operations that increase organic matter within the soil. The use of technology could also be seen as a public benefit, i.e. the use of GPS that helps reduce soil compaction. There are also opportunities to help farmers reduce soil compaction with new tyre technology that can help reduce water run-off and soil loss. Livestock farmers could be incentivized to leave a longer grass after grazing to help reduce the speed at which water leaves the fields.

But a line will need to be drawn to distinguish what is a private business benefit and what is a public benefit as the public purse should not pay for things that are purely for business benefit. While public money could be used to help farmers transition, that should not mean continual payment for what becomes the new standard practice.

As ELM evolves and develops, payment rates and outcomes may need to change To reflect the journey that the farming industry will go through. Through the current Government support schemes, farmers are regulated by cross compliance but sometimes the enforcement of these rules has been lacking. When farmers carry out operations that degrade and accelerate the loss of their soil that causes issues to others, there needs to be a well-resourced regulatory body to engage with and support the farmer in changing his farming practices.

While we see the majority of farmers trying to do best practice, there are a small minority that let the industry down.

We need clear regulation and standards communicated to farmers so they understand the base level they must comply with for managing the soil. We need future enforcement to be fair, just and transparent; this is been really lacking in the past. I believe this needs to form a process of engagement and education, then, engagement, education and financial penalty. And for complete non-compliance a financial penalty that reflects the problem that has been caused. As farmers we need to take all reasonable steps to protect our soil preventing it from leaving our farm and all the nutrients held within it polluting the water courses.

Depending on the different farming operations, crops or livestock reared, different management techniques will be required across England to meet local needs and outcomes. As the three different levels of ELM get developed, improving soil health should feature in all of them:

  • The Sustainable Farming Incentive that is aimed at farmers should encourage all farmers to take steps to deliver soil health improvements.
  • The Local Nature Recovery scheme can help focus on collaboration and landscape priorities, bringing people together to deliver local nature recovery.
  • The Landscape Recovery scheme will have the opportunity to deliver large landscape recovery and soil health benefits across large areas of the countryside bringing many different stakeholders together to deliver a recovery plan.

The next few years will see many changes and challenges within the farming industry but with everyone working together and supporting Defra in developing ELM to deliver the outcomes everyone hopes for.

This needs to be a generous payment for true public good and needs to move away from the old model of income forgone plus costs. Future public money will need to recognize and reward land managers fairly for the public goods that society wants them to deliver.

Martin Lines is chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network. He is a third-generation farmer and contractor in South Cambridgeshire.

Follow: @NFFNUK

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.