Support for farmers should be focused on helping them protect soils and carry out land management practices which protect the environment.
Soil expert and agricultural consultant John Geraghty warned that farmers were ‘running out of time’ and that they needed to be encouraged to utilise farming practices which boosted soils.
Speaking at a special session on soil at the Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Geraghty said the industry needed ‘proactive support’ to ensure soils were protected and - where possible - restored.
“Farmers in the red can’t look after the green,” he told delegates. “We are paying the price for over-cultivating soils, and if we don't make changes now it will be too late.”
Soil scientist Jane Rickson from Cranfield University said that the UK landscape could be altered irreparably if more care wasn’t taken over the country’s soils.
“Soil is key to the appearance of the UK landscape,” she said. “Not only that, it provides ecosystem services which underpin sustainable agriculture.”
Professor Rickson farmers should be concerned about the current degree of soil degradation, including compaction, salinisation and loss of biodiversity.
However it was soil erosion which posed the biggest threat to the industry, with reduced crop activity from soil erosion costing the UK £165m a year alone.
“There are a number of measures though that farmer could take to maintain soil health, including limiting soil movement during cultivation, and planting cover crops,” she said.
Field engineering and looking at products which help limit erosion would also help considerably, she added.
“We have healthy soils in some places, but we must be aware that this can be irreversibly damaged, particularly with soil erosion,” she said. “We can maintain soil health and productivity and control degradation.
“The biggest challenge we have is reconciling the short-term costs with the long-term benefits of soil health.”
Leicestershire farmer Wil Armitage told the conference that taking care of his soils had reaped huge benefits to his organic and non-organic dairy farm.
“Soil management is making an impact on the integrity of the food we produce," said Mr Armitage, who had studied the impacts of soil as part of a Nuffield Farming Scholarship.
Using cover crops to lock nitrogen into the soil and increase top soil had improved forage quality, which in turn lead to healthier cattle and helped his farm run more profitably, he said.