Farmers need the right incentives to stop land degradation, experts say

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

According to recent UN data, up to 40% of the world’s land surface is degraded, which, if left unsolved, could damage food production and biodiversity, and derail climate protection efforts and cause mass migration.

Healthy soils are rich in biodiversity and support all life on earth. Only a handful of earth contains more organisms than people on earth.

People 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, farmland has lost around 40-60% of its organic carbon to intensive farming, according to the Environment Agency, and in 2010 soil degradation cost £1.2 billion each year.

At a round table organized by the Save Soil movement in December, UN experts agreed that farmers need to be supported to switch to more sustainable practices.

They proposed three options: certification, where consumers pay more for sustainable soil management than for organic food; government subsidies for farmers who adopt sustainable practices; and carbon trading.

Professor Rosa Maria Poch, Chair of the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, said: “We need to move from soil-only management to soil-centric management.

There should be incentives for using sustainable farming practices, not just for meeting metrics, says Dr. Simon Jeffery (Danny Lawson/PA).

“To do this, society needs to know better what soils are and what they do.

“Besides soil awareness, countries need to conduct detailed soil surveys to know their soils. If we don’t know our soils, we cannot manage this precious resource to its potential.”

The UK government is already paying 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 the farmer can no longer add organic matter to the soil.

He added: “They’re actually getting punished compared to someone who pulverizes their floor and beats them to death, or their benchmarks are really low. You have plenty of space to set it up.

“At worst, someone who’s a bit cynical and manages their soils might say, ‘Well, that’s not fair, I’m going to go out and plow my soils, knock my benchmark down as much as possible and that’s how I can make money doing it rebuild. That seems crazy to me.”

National Farmers’ Union Environment Forum Chair Richard Bramley said: “It’s always been one of the issues when you’re already on that path and you’ve done a lot of work to improve the soils, improve the biodiversity of the landscape, you manage, it can be quite difficult to access the support that is there to make those changes because you’ve already made them.

“Soil is the absolute foundation of our business and most good farmers have realized this for years and are working to improve their soil.

“Incentives from governments will be an important pillar.

“We need investment in farms, in technology, in people who measure and advise, and in products that support a more cyclical use of nutrients from organic sources.”

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