The UK has only 40 years of fertile crop growing left because intensive farming is “cutting the ground from beneath" our feet, Michael Gove has warned.
The Environment Secretary said heavy farm machinery and overuse of chemicals was boosting short-term productivity but would render large tracts of soil infertile within a generation.
Speaking at the Parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Association (SSA), a group formed to tackle the issue, Mr Gove said Britain had encouraged types of farming which “damaged the earth”.
“Countries can withstand coups d’etat, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility,” he said.
“If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improves yields but in the long-term undercut the future fertility of the soil, you can increase yields year-on-year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feat.
“Farmers know that.”
Mr Gove said farmers needed to be incentivised to tackle the loss of soil fertility and the decline in bio-diversity more generally.
Soil fertility decline occurs when the nutrient requirements of a crop are met from soil reserves, meaning more nutrients are being removed from the earth over time than are introduced.
This eventually results in a reduction of crop growth and yield
Moved to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs after the June general election, Mr Gove has already indicated he would not use the freedom afforded by Brexit to prioritise “US-style farming” above environmental concerns.
This week he said he wanted the SSA to hold the Government’s efforts to address fertility decline to account.
“We are listening to you now and it’s critical that we do so,” he told the launch.
Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association, which campaigns against intensive farming, told The Guardian: “Everyone is quite bowled over by some of the comments that Michael Gove is making.”
“There’s been quite a dramatic shift in understanding around what we’re doing to our soils,” she said.
In 2014 a study by Sheffield University predicted that, on average, UK farm soils were capable of only 100 more harvests.
Paul Lewis, a senior lecturer in soil and environmental science at Harper Adams University said the UK loses about 2.2 million tonnes of soil a year, partly because farmers field bare for too long.
“The greatest single item of machinery a farmer can have is a spade”, he said. "They should be regularly checking the nutrient levels on their farms.”
The tillage harvest, which is not yet quite finished, will long be remembered for its difficulty and for the lost crops or salvage work required at the end, particularly in relation to straw. Storm Ophelia just added further to the woes especially for those who had beans and maize to harvest.