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23 February 2024

Addressing the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reaffirmed his commitment to spending the full £2.4 billion farming budget. He announced new support measures, including an extra £1,000 Management Payment for farmers signed up to Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, as well as funding for the development of new technology and an annual Food Security Index. 

Alan Lovell, Chair of the Environment Agency, gave a keynote speech at the NFU Conference. Alongside addressing challenges in farming and issues of water pollution from agriculture, he highlighted the importance of healthy soils. He encouraged collaboration between farmers, scientists and academics, and said he hopes that the government responds positively to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s soil health inquiry report published last year.  

It is expected that the Welsh government will make changes to its proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme after farmer backlash during the past weeks. The scheme is designed to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy payments and rewards farmers for engaging in environmentally friendly practices, including actions to improve soil health. Farmers are being encouraged to respond to the consultation on the scheme, with Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths promising to address concerns raised. 

The NFU has published the findings of its governance review of farm assurance scheme Red Tractor, which was launched after concerns were raised last year around its Greener Farm Commitment. The review found that governance structures at Red Tractor are ‘sound, albeit complex’, provided recommendations for improvement and acknowledged farmer discontent. 

A study summarised in The Conversation has warned that global soils are running low on potassium, and outlined six steps required to address the issue. It highlights that around 20% of the world’s agricultural soils are deficient in potassium, which risks food production. Steps outlined to address the issue include providing localised, targeted advice for farmers and the creation of a circular economy for potassium. 

The EU has agreed on a new certification framework for carbon removals, which includes the monitoring, reporting and verification of removals through carbon farming. Activities recognised in the regulation cover soil and wetland management and soil emissions reduction, which must last at least five years to be certified. 

Ecologist Ruth Mitchell has written on why tree planting schemes must consider soils when being planned. Research from the James Hutton Institute has shown that tree planting in carbon rich soil could result in the release of carbon, undermining the overall purpose of the schemes as it can take many years for the trees to sequester enough carbon to balance out what is initially lost by their planting. 

Soil microbiologist Andrew Neal has explained in Farmers Weekly the difficulties of measuring soil carbon and discussed some myths around soil organic matter (SOM). He explains that while there are multiple benefits of improving SOM, there is little scientific evidence to prove that it will directly improve yield. He also says that the ‘unpredictable’ nature of soil carbon creates challenges for carbon markets, leading to some scepticism from industry stakeholders. 

Research has suggested that soil microbes may be the secret to the best tasting cup of tea. Scientists have identified a collection of microbes in the roots of tea plants which create theanine - the amino acid which creates the taste of tea. By genetically modifying plants to enhance the presence of these microbes, they say that the quality of tea could be enhanced.