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12 January 2024

The new year started off with Environment Secretary Steve Barclay, announcing an update to the 2024 Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) at the Oxford Farming Conference last week. The update brings Countryside Stewardship and the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) under the same application, and sees an average 10% increase to payment rates. There will also be 50 new paid actions, which will include further actions to improve soil health, though full details won’t be released until the summer. 

The new ELMs announcement comes as it was shown that the government did not spend its full farming budget last year, with The Guardian publishing figures showing a £117 million underspend in 2022/2023. Farmers have said that their direct payments have been halved since Brexit, and the National Farmers’ Union has criticised the underdevelopment of the government’s incentive scheme, while the government has refuted any underspend. 

Soil featured on the agenda at the Oxford Real Farming Conference also held last week, with a well attended session on Soil Health at Scale bringing together two farmers interested in soil health to discuss their novel approaches. The new documentary feature film Six Inches of Soil was also premiered at the Conference, which follows the stories of three UK farmers fighting against the industrial food system. The film is being shown at independent screenings across the UK - click here to find one near you! 

The UK government’s promised Land Use Framework, which was due to be published by the end of 2023, has been delayed and is now expected to be shared later this year. The Land Use Framework, which will apply to England, is intended to outline the government’s strategy for how they plan to use land more effectively to meet environmental and food security targets. 

Storm Henk saw major flooding in parts of the UK last week, with the government announcing up to £25,000 in new support to farmers impacted by the damage. Environmental campaigners Save Soil have said that soil degradation significantly increases the risk of flooding, and Labour have accused the government of being ‘asleep at the wheel’ on issues of flooding. 

The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) has been working with its members on Natural Flood Management (NFM) practices as a response to recent flooding. Along with beck-wiggling (changing the shape of a river to include more bends and ponds), and fencing off rivers from livestock, farmers have been planting trees to improve soil and make riverbanks more resilient. 

Nuffield Scholar Ben Hunt has published his work which analyses soil carbon markets from the farmer’s perspective. His research looks at soil carbon markets both in the UK and abroad, and concludes that offset markets are risky for farmers due to issues around greenwashing. 

A machine learning tool has been developed to understand and predict the impact of microplastics on soil properties. The tool looked at the impact of different sizes, shapes and types of microplastics on the soil, and will contribute to future decision making on plastic waste management. 

Research from Linköping University in Sweden has shown that soil productivity can be increased by over 50% with the introduction of an ‘eSoil’. The advancement in hydroponics technology introduces an electrically conductive substrate derived from cellulose, and it is hoped that the finding could improve food supply to address issues of food security.