Industry leaders have reacted with anger to a Government decision which could stop farmers being paid to improve soil health after Brexit.
An application for an Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) trial focused on crop rotations has been rejected by Defra on the grounds healthy soil is a ‘natural asset’ from which public goods can flow, but not a public good in its own right.
This means any project which aimed to improve soil health alone would not attract investment under ELMS.
Defra’s refusal to accept the trial has come as a shock to its creator, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).
In 2017, Secretary of State Michael Gove pledged to do more to tackle the problem of degraded soils and the ‘Health and Harmony’ consultation preceding the Agriculture Bill specifically name-checked improved soil health as a public good which could be rewarded after Brexit.
Speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting in Westminster this week (April 2), the GWCT’s head of policy Dr Alastair Leake said: “I am sorry, but I do not feel this is the direction we need to be going in.
“We should surely provide some incentive for soil health. Not so long ago we paid farmers to put 15 per cent of their land into set aside. It is not a big leap to get farmers to put 15 per cent of their land into soil-restoring crops.
“We need a blended funding model because the farmer and society will both benefit from good soil management.”
Peter Melchett, the late Soil Association policy director, was also involved in putting the trial together.
His successor, Jo Lewis, told Farmers Guardian she was concerned healthy soil was not being considered a public good by Defra.
“This view appears at odds with Michael Gove’s statement at the Oxford Farming Conference that improving the level of organic matter in soil is a public good farmers should be rewarded for,” she added.
“We urgently need Defra to translate political statements into meaningful support for farmers.”
A Defra spokesman said: “The Government has demonstrated its commitment to healthy soils through setting a target in the 25-Year Environment Plan to manage all soil sustainably by 2030.”