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Farmers play crucial role in protecting soils, FUW stresses

Farmers across Wales are playing a crucial role in protecting soils and are essential in enhancing and building healthy soils across Wales, the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) has highlighted in its recent response to the Welsh Government’s draft soil policy.

The FUW highlighted that the Welsh Soil Evidence Review is a welcome, useful review and a generally positive document which highlights the soil health benefits arising from the ‘‘Welsh Way” of farming. 

Farming permanent grasslands (>80% of agricultural land in Wales), with mixed (cattle and sheep grazing together) and rotational/seasonal grazing (graze and rest systems, or summer/winter only hill grazing systems) on soils with a ‘higher greater carbon content than most soils in England and Europe’ all contribute towards healthy soil-  the cornerstone of life on earth. 

Through the ‘Welsh Way’ of farming, farmers in Wales are keeping soils covered, creating a consequently low risk of soil erosion, and building high soil organic matter content which contributes towards better water infiltration rates, higher carbon sequestration, and healthier soil microbiology and soil fertility.

However, the Union also stressed that the review rightly recognises the risks to soil health associated with land use change (such as afforestation, development or conversion to arable), inappropriate management (such as compaction) and climate change.

Speaking from her farm in North Wales, FUW Policy Officer Teleri Fielden said:

“It is appreciated that the focus of the soil policy statement is on agricultural soils due to 80% of the land in Wales being managed for agriculture. 

“However, that does not necessarily mean that agricultural soils are those with the highest risk of soil degradation. On the contrary, the review recognises the low risks that most of this management poses to soil degradation, therefore, a holistic soil policy should incorporate all land uses, especially those which result in more soil disturbance than permanent pastures – such as forestry, housing, road building, and renewable energy plants.

“We also believe that there needs to be a greater emphasis in the draft soil policy statement on the potential for soil carbon gains through livestock and grassland management. The agricultural industry in Wales is already a world leader in developing grass species, grassland management and sustainable livestock management, and therefore there is great potential in harnessing the existing experience and knowledge to further improve SOM and its associated benefits.” 

For example, the achievable SOC sequestration potential in global grasslands is 2.3 to 7.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year (CO2e year−1) for biodiversity restoration, 148 to 699 megatons of CO2e year−1 for improved grazing management, and 147 megatons of CO2e year−1 for sown legumes in pasture land, according to a study in ‘Science’ by Bai and Cotrufo (2022 https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abo2380 ).

“We have argued that these potential gains for Wales should not be dismissed, particularly due to their potential to create multiple benefits, be a low-cost and high-carbon gain activity, and they do not impact negatively on food production,” she said.

The FUW welcomed the development of a soil policy and an increased focus on soil health and soil carbon, however raised concerns that the statement claims ‘there is no soil protection policy in Wales’. Conversely, farmers have to comply with a number of rules relating to soils in order to access financial support via the Basic Payment Scheme, or risk penalties. For example, eight pages of various rules pertaining to soil cover, erosion, inputs to soils and organic matter are included in current Cross-compliance rules.

“Currently, managing soils in this way in addition to producing food is supported via the Basic Payment Scheme (which makes up around 80% of Welsh farmers’ income). However, the Agriculture (Wales) White Paper proposed to make these rules ‘National Minimum Standards’. Therefore, all farmers, regardless of whether they are in receipt of any subsidies, will have to comply with these regulations or risk civil sanctions against them. 

“Whilst Welsh farmers are proud of the high environmental and animal welfare standards Welsh food is produced to, there is a risk, particularly with liberalised trade deals being struck with large agri-exporters that UK agriculture will be undercut, or undermined by the produce being imported. 

“The costs incurred with complying to these higher standards, or the production reduction means that raising the regulatory baseline for Welsh farmers may simply serve to make them uncompetitive at their current level of production, and consequently offshore the UK’s environmental footprint to other countries, whilst becoming more dependent on imported food,” added Teleri Fielden. 

Therefore, the Union stressed that if the liberalisation of free trade agreements and unfair competition continues, the Welsh Government will need to provide additional support for farmers to ensure environmental standards are upheld and farmers are able to stay competitive.