research & recommendations
National Farmers’ Union
Farming has played a key role in shaping the countryside we all enjoy today. Every sector – livestock, arable, horticulture, upland, lowland, organic, conventional and tenanted – and every type of farm continues to carry out a huge amount of work to protect and enhance the landscape, encourage wildlife, benefit soil and water, and reduce their impact on the climate. With agriculture occupying over 70% of the UK landmass, farm businesses play an irreplaceable role in looking after our cherished natural environment. This NFU report looks at five key areas of the environment where farmers can, and do, play a key role in tackling the challenges we face – landscape, biodiversity, soil, water and air. It celebrates our members, sharing stories about the work they are doing to maintain and enhance our nation’s vital natural assets while running productive farm businesses.
Campaign to Protect Rural England
This is the third paper of our Food and Farming Foresight Series. We explore why soils are important and their main functions, and look at the key threats they face, from the way they are managed to their loss to farming when developed. The report also analyses why soils must be better protected in the future, including to secure the domestic supply of food, reduce the risks of climate change, improve water quality and restore the health of the natural world. It also considers why soils continue to be degraded and lost, including an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of recent policy.
We set out innovative farming practices, from agroforestry to mob grazing, that can help regenerate and restore healthy soils, whilst still maintaining the productivity and profitability of the farms that use them
Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
“These organisms, which often cannot be seen with the naked eye and spend vast parts of their life cycle underground or inside plants and animals, are responsible for incredibly important processes; global cycling of nutrients, carbon sequestration, and even the prevention of desertification in some drought-prone regions of the world. Fungi also underpin products & processes that we rely heavily on in aspects of everyday life, from critical drugs (including statins) to synthesis of biofuels, to cleaning up the environment through bioremediation.”
Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology
“In the last century, agricultural production intensified, but this increased its impacts on the environment, waste in supply chains and in some regions of the world, disconnected it from people’s lives. Projections of global population growth and changing consumption patterns out to 2050 suggest further increases in food production will be needed. This POSTnote outlines key drivers of global agricultural trends and the challenge of safeguarding both food production and environment value in a changing world.”
World Wide Fund for Nature
“All economic activity ultimately depends on services provided by nature, est. to be worth around US$125 trillion a year. As we better understand our reliance on natural systems it’s clear that nature is not just a ‘nice to have’. Business and the finance industry are starting to question how global environmental risks will affect the macroeconomic performance of countries, sectors and financial markets, and policy-makers wonder how we will meet climate & sustainable development targets with declining nature and biodiversity.”
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
6 October 2018
“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels... Global warming is likely to reach 1.5° between 2030 - 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. Impacts on natural and human systems from global warming have already been observed. Many land & ocean ecosystems… have already changed. On land, impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, including species loss and extinction, are projected to be lower at 1.5° compared to 2°C.”
European Academies Science Advisory Council
“…with little awareness of how much we rely for our well-being on the complex living ecosystems of soils… in many regions of the world unawareness, unsustainable industrialised agriculture, poverty & other factors lead to destruction of good soils. This report focuses on soil biodiversity and its contribution to above-ground diversity, modern farming, plant and human health (&) interactions between soils and climate change.”
The Royal Society / Royal Academy of Engineering
In 2017 the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering were asked by the UK Government to consider scientific and engineering views on greenhouse gas removal. This report draws on a breadth of expertise including that of the Fellowships of the two academies to identify the range of available greenhouse gas removal methods, the factors that will affect their use and consider how they may be deployed together to meet climate targets, both in the UK and globally.
Valuing Nature Programme / Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
6 September 2018
Natural Capital refers to the assets within our natural environment that provide benefits for humans. Plants, animals, freshwater, soil, minerals, air and oceans all contribute to Natural Capital. The concept lies at the heart of the UK Government’s recently published 25 Year Environment Plan and is set to play an increasingly influential role in public policy and business decision-making.
Nature Ecology & Evolution
27 August 2018
"The authors found that soils in the northern regions of Europe, America and Asia contain more microbes and smaller animals than those in southern regions and the tropics, and these are more sensitive to warmer temperatures. These organisms are therefore likely to release carbon dioxide at a faster rate than those in warmer parts of the world."
Pasture-Fed Livestock Association
"This interim report seeks to address the environmental and animal welfare benefits of the raising of ruminants wholly on pasture, as reflected in the Pasture for Life certification mark and its underlying standards. It has been prepared by farmers in response to requests for information on the two topics and follows on from a similar report on the human health benefits arising from animals raised to Pasture for Life standards."
13 July 2018
"Who owns the soils? What seems to be a straight forward legal issue actually opens up a debate about…the distribution of benefits and responsibilities for sustaining functioning and healthy soils…Using the new institutional economics perspective, we show that multi-functionality of soils and an attribute-based property rights perspective substantiate the intuition that land property implies special obligations towards the common good."
Critical Decline of Earthworms from Organic Origins under Intensive, Humic SOM-Depleting Agriculture
"Organic farming lessens humic degradation, conserves essential soil moisture and produces equivalent or higher crop yields at lower cost. Loss of earthworms adds weight for rational re-evaluation of viable means for food production compatible with environmental conservation (agroecology). Persistence with failing chemical agriculture makes neither ecological nor economic sense."
"The time it takes to refill water supplies, coupled with our variable weather conditions and diverse landscape, means we could increasingly see water shortages in some areas at the same time as flooding in others... If we do not increase water supply, reduce demand and cut down on wastage, many areas will face significant water deficits by 2050....we risk a future without enough water for people, business, farmers, wildlife and the environment."
The Wildlife Trusts
‘As Britain stands on the brink of its biggest ever shake-up of environmental rules, the Trusts are calling for a wilder, better Britain. Wildlife has been getting less and less common for decades. Wild places are more scarce, smaller and more isolated. There is less nature in the places where we live and work. Not everyone has equal access to nature or the benefits it brings. Nature needs to recover, for better health, climate control, flood management, enjoyment, employment and more.’
World Wide Fund for Nature
"We are seeing an ongoing decline in river health and aquatic biodiversity. Only 14% of rivers in England are classed as healthy. Poor farming and land management practices are among the main causes.... Governance reform is required...to get better value from the billions invested each year by water bill payers and taxpayers."
"Agriculture contributes less than 0.5% to the UK economy but provides half of the food we eat, employs half a million people and is a key part of the food and drink sector... It is farmers and land managers who manage 72% of the UK's land, and through them we can safeguard our natural environment and ensure the highest standards of animal and plant health."
"As soil degradation problems are caused by the interplay of biophysical, socio-economic and political factors, all of which vary across Europe, these problems are by definition site specific and occur at different scales. Therefore, 17 Case Studies of soil threats are included in RECARE to study the various conditions that occur across Europe and to find appropriate responses using an innovative approach combining scientific and local knowledge."
“Food production and agriculture are vital to the UK economy. Food is the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector. The agri-food sector contributes £109 billion to the economy every year, supported by an agriculture and fishing base worth around £11 billion. The strength of this sector has benefited UK households as well as the broader economy... Yet cheap food has come at the expense of the people and natural systems that produce it.”
The European Nitrogen Assessment 6 years after: What was the outcome and what are the future research challenges?
The European Nitrogen Assessment
"We reflect on what (the first European Nitrogen Assessment) achieved, what are the emerging research challenges (and) how the agenda for nitrogen research and policy application needs to be developed in future."
Final report to Defra, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
"Lowland peatlands represent one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems in the UK. As a result of widespread habitat modification and drainage to support agriculture and peat extraction, they...are now amongst the largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions."
Sustainable Food Trust
"Globally, more than half of all soils are now classified as degraded, with approximately 1.5 billion people living on degraded land. This damage, largely the result of industrial farming practices, over-grazing and global warming, generates an enormous hidden cost to society...the loss of soil carbon across the UK costs us £3.21 billion annually and an estimated $6.3 to $10.6 trillion at a global level."
Sustainable Food Trust
"This report finds that the food we eat costs us about twice as much as it appears in our shopping bills. For every £1 UK consumers spend on food, additional costs of around £1 are incurred. These costs are not paid by the food businesses, nor are they included within the retail price of food. Instead they are passed on to society in a range of hidden ways."
RSPB / National Trust / Wildlife Trusts
"Most rural land in the UK is used for farming... Agriculture...has had the single greatest impact on wildlife and the environment compared to any other driver of change. With the UK preparing to leave the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy the UK Government and devolved administrations will have to build replacement policies."
"The UK's commitment to the '4 per 1000' initiative to increase soil carbon stocks by 0.4% year-on-year is welcome, but Government policies remain piecemeal and inadequate.
We already know the practices that destroy soils and those that can restore and protect them. What we need are policies to support and encourage farmers to do more of the right thing."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA
"Natural climate solutions can provide 37% of cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030 for a >66% chance of holding warming to below 2 degrees C. Collectively the grassland and agriculture pathways offer 1/4 of low-cost NCS mitigation opportunities. Cropland Nutrient Management is the largest cost-effective agricultural pathway."
Agriculture & Fisheries Council
"Currently, regulations on soils are significantly lacking regarding the balance of soil-air-water. Existing European Union policies (e.g. agriculture, water, waste, industrial pollution prevention policies) help somewhat in protecting soils, but they do not go far enough towards ensuring the sustainability of European soils"
Natural Capital Committee
"The Plan is a huge economic and social opportunity that can genuinely transform the natural environment, support the growth of the economy, allow citizens to reconnect with nature and gift our children a better natural inheritance... a healthy environment is the basis of sustainable economic growth."
"The natural storage capacity of soil can be easily lost due to compaction resulting from the way land is managed. Soil compaction can be a widespread problem in wet years and can often lead to localised flooding and pollution...This manual provides examples of how these risks can be managed in differing landscapes."
Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
“Critical loads define the amount of acid or nitrogen deposition above which significant harmful effects are expected to occur to sensitive habitats….Critical levels refer to the concentrations of gaseous pollutants above which direct adverse effects on sensitive vegetation may occur.”
Committee on Climate Change
"The UK urgently needs new policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change will not wait while other priorities are addressed: plans must be published... setting out how the Government intends to deliver...a 57% reduction in emissions from 1990 to 2030."
University of Sheffield
"Soil degradation by agriculture threatens future food security and resiliencefor our increasing global population...The findings confirm that soil degradation has implications for a number of key policy areas such as flood risk management and climate change mitigation."
Joint Research Centre
"Our age is one of rapid change, incredible discoveries and big science...This first global compilation of soil biodiversity focuses on the rapid acceleration of our knowledge and how this dazzling and spectacular world beneath our feet works to provide us with benefits necessary for life."
"The report links the resilience of Welsh natural resources to the wellbeing of the people ...our natural resources are coming under increasing pressure - from climate change, a growing population and the need for energy. Poorly managed natural resources increase the long-term risks to our wellbeing."
"The Directorate General for Environment of the European Commission organised an EU Soil Stakeholders' Conference. This event was a contribution to World Soil Day 2016 aiming to raise awareness of the importance of soils and the ecosystem services that they deliver. It was also a contribution to the implementation of the EU Soil Thematic Strategy."
"Qualitative on-farm, in-field assessment of soil health does not need to involve special analyses, only the informed observation and interpretation of soil characteristics. This is usually done by visual assessment, but the smell and feel of soil may also be involved."
Rothamsted Research / NIAB
Compiled by Prof Keith Goulding, Sustainable Soils Research Fellow & former lecturer (now retired) in Soil Biology at NIAB. Comprising biological indicators including Farmers Weekly biological health test; a visual evaluation of soil structure; molecular methods; meta-genomic analysis; expert assessment of indicators; details of soil monitoring networks; and tests used by UK farmers.
World Wide Fund for Nature
"We are beginning to... understand that a diverse, healthy, resilient and productive natural environment is the foundation for a prosperous, just and safe future for humanity. This will be crucial if we are to win the many other development battles such as combatting poverty, improving health and building economies."
Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)
"Most farmers and growers understand the importance of soil health for...productivity, sustainability and profitability, but many face significant challenges when interpreting results from laboratory analysis or when choosing suitable methods for assessing the health of their soils."
UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology
The Group conducted an inquiry into soil health and protection in 2015/16, with particular focus on agriculture. The report raises serious concerns about the state of UK soil, concluding with policy recommendations in the following key areas: climate change; knowledge; testing and data collection; and farming methods.
"Especially detrimental is soil compaction which occurs deep in the subsoil, as this compaction cannot be reversed with normal soil cultivation.... Field traffic, with heavy loads on wet soils, is an essentially critical contributor to severe soil compaction... To address this, improved techniques to reduce soil pressure and to understand actual soil water content can be helpful."
The Soil Association
"Our soils are degrading, and so, therefore, is the long-term ability for farmers to keep up food production. Compaction and signs of surface run-off are visible in many fields, which can increase the risk of localised flooding. Arable and horticultural soils are losing soil organic matter. This report outlines 7 key ways to increase Soil Organic Matter (SOM) in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20% over the next 20 years."
"Soil formation is a long term process therefore recovery rates for damaged soils are very slow. An effective (soil) strategy should incorporate both urban and agricultural soils; establish baseline data; have a long-term commitment to monitoring; and be incorporated in to decision-making processes."
Science of the Total Environment
"More large storms in the future will increase the loss of valuable soil and nutrients from agricultural fields. In the wake of Storm Desmond, and the wettest November and December since records began, farmers in the North West are once again struggling with waterlogged soil, livestock and crop loss."
"Growing resilient, efficient and thriving GREATsoils. The project aims to inspire growers to develop their ability to assess the health of their soil, and give growers practical solutions to improve soil health. Funded by AHDB Horticulture, in partnership with Earthcare Technical, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association."
"The condition of soil on beef and sheep farms directly influences the yield and quality of grass and forage crops, livestock performance and enterprise profitability.
This manual offers useful advice to help improve knowledge and management of farmland soil...to produce healthy crops and livestock whilst improving the environment.
Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
"The overwhelming conclusion of the first-ever comprehensive report on the world’s soil resources, prepared by the ITPS, is that the majority of soils are in only fair, poor or very poor condition... and conditions are getting worse in far more cases than they are improving."
Soil Security Programme
"Sustainably managed soils are essential for the future delivery of a variety of ecosystem services.
However, (this) ability...is threatened by degradation processes such as erosion, compaction, loss of organic matter and acidification. UK governments are committed to promoting sustainable soil management."
Scottish Environment Protection Agency
"Climate change, population growth, economics, and environmental legislation... all necessitate a move towards a more integrated, catchment based approach to the management of land and water.... this can bring about whole catchment improvements and multiple benefits to society."
Soil Use and Management
"National governments are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of their soil resources and are shaping strategies accordingly. Implicit in any such strategy is that degradation threats and their potential effect on important soil properties and functions are defined and understood."
Consultation on new basic rules for farmers to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture in England
"Diffuse pollution can come from many sources...Farming naturally has an impact on the water environment and many farmers already take action to reduce this. We need to do more if we are to protect and improve our water environment and conserve all the benefits it gives us."
A cover crop is a non-cash crop grown primarily for the purpose of 'protecting or improving' (usually the soil) between periods of regular crop production.
Cover crops can be used repeatedly as part of a long-term strategy to improve soil quality, organic matter and provide other benefits."
"There is growing concern that the way soils are used often results in their degradation, giving rise to significant costs to direct users of soils and society as a whole. The findings confirm that control of soil degradation has implications for a number of key policy areas."
"Erosion risk factors… were identified as: the intensity, duration and timing of rainfall events; the physical, biological and chemical properties of soils; the length, gradient and form of slope; the type of vegetation /crop on the land and its stage of development; and the type and timing of singular or combined land management practices."
"Maize is probably the most rapidly growing crop in the UK. Most maize is used as silage for animal feed, especially for dairy cattle, but increasingly maize is being grown as an energy crop for anaerobic digesters that are subsidised from public money to produce gas for fuel... Research published in 2014 found that 75% of late harvested maize sites showed high or severe levels of soil degradation."
"This summary sets out Natural England's assessment of the key evidence relating to soils and their conservation and management. It providees a statement of current evidence base, presenting: what we know (with supporting data and key references); areas that are subject to active research and debate; what we do not yet know from the evidence base."
"Every year, an estimated 12 million hectares of agricultural land are lost to soil degradation, adding to the billions of hectares that are already degraded. Comprehensive soil conservation practices are required to respond to the multiple problems of soil degradation if the world is to be able to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050."
Soil & Tillage Research
"The signiﬁcance of soil compaction to farm gate gross margins was apparent... All soil compaction avoidance technologies increased gross margins signiﬁcantly... (and) also decrease leaching and emissions of nitrogen, and require less fuel, providing a win–win situation for farmers and the environment."
Soil Use and Management
"Investigations between 2002 and 2011 identified soil structural degradation to be widespread in SW England with 38%...sufficiently degraded...to produce observable features of enhanced surface‐water runoff. Soil under arable crops often had high or severe levels of structural degradation."
"Concern about soil erosion on arable land in Britain dates back at least 40 years.
Initial concern focused on impacts on the farm and therefore on food production. Latterly the emphasis has shifted to off-farm impacts particularly reservoir sedimentation, muddy flooding of properties and the ecological damage to water courses due to nutrient enrichment, pesticides and damage to fish spawning grounds from fine-sediment inputs."
"it is important to know the condition of soil and how this changes over space and time in response to natural factors (such as changing weather patterns) or land management practices. Meaningful soil quality indicators...are needed for the successful implementation of a soil monitoring programme in England and Wales."
HGCA / AHDB
"No-till, also known as direct drilling or zero tillage...means sowing directly in to the residues of the previous crop without any prior topsoil loosening.
The objective of no-till is to reduce production costs while maintaining or increasing yields with possible added environmental benefits."
University of Siena
"This report presents the findings of an ongoing study carried out to quantify the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are associated with the activities at Fattoria La Vialla, Tuscany, for the year 2012. La Vialla has a phyto purification system for the treatment of domestic water waste and several solar panel systems for the production of renewable electric energy. The paper and cardboard used for advertising and packaging is recycled..."
"The role played by soils in providing wellbeing to society has been clearly articulated in the recent Soil Strategy for England. The continued provision of benefits from the soil to society is dependent on the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil being maintained. However, much evidence suggests that soil degradation results in significant costs... to society as a whole, now and into the future."
This reading list presents a series of selected soil-related references from staff of the National Soil Resources Institute, Cranfield University.
These papers, books and reports have been selected as useful literature for users keen to develop their undersanding of soil, soil processes and soil information systems, particularly with a UK focus.
European Nitrogen Assessment: Sources, Effects and Policy Perspectives
"Too much nitrogen harms the environment and the economy. Over the past century humans have caused unprecedented changes to the global nitrogen cycle...The increased use of reactive nitrogen as fertiliser...has considerable adverse affects on the environment and human health."
"Taking the time to look at soil structure is essential for profitable farming, soil health and the environment. Diagnosing the state of soils isn't always easy. Soil condition can vary considerably across a field and at different depths, and can vary throughout the year depending on land management. Different soil types are at risk to different types of damage. Every field is unique."
Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
"Ongoing data analysis is focussed on identifying the links between soil variables measured, soil, vegetation and water quality changes...and trends in soil variables and the intended and unintended change of our environment from man's activities such as land use and management, air pollution and climate change."
“Protecting soil, a pressing challenge for 2010 and beyond. Biodiversity loss and climate change are two of the most pressing challenges of our time, and soil biodiversity is part of the solution to both. Yet it is under constant threat, largely from human activities that we can control. It is our responsibility, therefore, to preserve the quality of soil before it is too late, and before its resident species and their fragile habitats are lost. That is why, at the European Commission, we have put soil at the heart of our thinking.”
Institute of Organic Training & Advice
"Soil analysis provides information which can be used to improve soil fertility through management. The extent to which soil fertility can be improved depends on the inherent properties of the site - soil texture, mineralogy, slope and climate. Soil structure is also key to plant performance as it affects the ability of plant roots to access available nutrients."
"Soil is your farm’s most valuable resource as the foundation for production. The most productive components of your soil lie in the top three to six inches of the profile – the layer most vulnerable to erosion. Erosion and runoff can result in valuable nutrients and, more importantly, environmentally damaging sediments, pesticides and dangerous disease organisms reaching water."
European Soil Data Centre
This map shows the natural susceptibility of agricultural soils to compaction... The evaluation of the soil’s natural susceptibility is based on the creation of logical connections between relevant parameters (pedotransfer rules). The input parameters for these pedotransfer rules are taken from the attributes of the European soil database, e.g. soil properties.
Royal Agricultural Society of England
"soil and water management face a considerable challenge in meeting the demands of increasing food production and security at both national and international level, the demand for alternative fuels, climate change, soil protection, flood and pollution control and the availability of water resources for crop and animal production combined with the diminishing supply of labour."
Since 2003, the UK Soils Indicator Consortium has been working to develop a set of indicators of soil function that will allow us to monitor current status and any change in soil quality.
This report suggests monitoring schemes to assess UK soils. Options are evaluated on their ability to monitor indicators to sufficient precision, the advantages and limitations of the scheme type and cost.
International Journal of Environmental Studies
"Current agricultural practices are increasing the magnitude and extent of soil erosion in Britain and other parts of Europe...Proposed strategies for soil conservation include avoiding cultivation of steep slopes, increasing soil organic content, reducing soil compaction... developing a mature crop cover before convective storms occur in early summer and reducing cultivations to a minimum."
The development & use of soil quality indicators for assessing the role of soil in environmental interactions
"There are increasing signs that UK soils have been neglected and may be undergoing irreversible damage.
A new report attempts to establish indicators of soil quality which could be used to monitor the state of soils on a nationwide scale."
University of Edinburgh
"From an analysis of a large body of experimental evidence of soil erosion, contemporary meteorological reports and evidence of previous muddy flooding on the South Downs it is proposed that the floods of autumn 2000 were caused and exacerbated by inappropriate land use. In particular, the growth of winter cereal crops on the Downs leaves soils without crop cover at the wettest time of year, leading to accelerated soil erosion and flooding."
"The diversity of life below ground far exceeds that above it and is vital to soil health and function, but these connections are only just beginning to be explored. While some of the impacts of mismanaging soil are obvious, dealing with them effectively requires a better knowledge of how soil, water and air interact. A growing scientific understanding must be translated into practical information and advice for land managers."
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
"The South Downs have been farmed for 5000 years: the initial loess cover is now a thin, stony remnant as a result of erosion. Almost all recent erosion has been on fields of winter cereals, which are bare in the wet autumn period. Flood damage to property has been a regular event since the conversion of this area to winter cereals in the 1970s...Current farming systems clearly are unsustainable."
UK Groundwater Forum
"Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient: some plants fix atmospheric nitrogen but modern farming practice involves the addition of nitrogen in the form of manure, sewage sludge and chemical fertilisers. The accumulation of soluble forms of nitrogen, particularly nitrate, in water can be detrimental since high concentrations in river water encourage eutrophication, and concentrations in drinking water must be limited for health reasons."