Ripping Apart the Fabric of the Nation

In an extraordinary coup, farmers’ unions and the UK government have torpedoed the European Soil Framework Directive

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 5th June 2014

“British soils are reaching crisis point”. Don’t take my word for it – this is a quote from a loyal friend of the farming industry, Farmers’ Weekly.

You would expect farmers to try to protect their soils, which are the foundations of their livelihood, and many do. There are some excellent farmers in Britain, careful, well-informed and always thinking of the future. But across large areas of land, short-termism now triumphs over common sense. Farmers are often in debt to the banks, and seek to clear that debt as quickly as they can. Many are growing crops that are simply incompatible with protecting the soil. Some don’t seem to know very much about soil erosion and why it happens. Others – especially contract farmers working on other people’s land – don’t seem to care. Sensible land use is giving way to smash-and grab-exploitation.

I always flinch at the name given to soil in the US: dirt. Here there’s a similar conflation: something dirty is said to have been soiled. But soil is a remarkable substance, a delicately-structured cushion between rock and air, formed from thousands of years of physical and biological processes. It supports an ecosystem that turns unusable materials into plant food, it stores carbon, filters water and protects us from floods. Oh, and there’s the small consideration that without it we would starve. It is, as it takes so long to re-form once it is lost, effectively non-renewable.

Yet this great gift of nature is being squandered at a horrifying rate. One study suggests that soil in Devon is being lost at the rate of five tonnes per hectare per year. There are several reasons for this, mostly to do with bad practice, but the problem has been exacerbated by an increase in the cultivation of maize.

Like the growing of potatoes, maize cultivation with conventional methods in this country is a perfect formula for ripping the soil off the land, as the ground is ploughed deeply then left almost bare for several months. A study in south-west England suggests that the soil structure has broken down in 75% of the maize fields there. Maize cultivation has expanded from 1,400 hectares to 160,000 since 1970. It is not grown to feed people, but to feed livestock and to supply anaerobic digestion plants producing biogas. If the National Farmers’ Union gets its way, maize growing will expand by another 100,000 hectares in the next six years, solely to make biogas.

Subsidies which were meant to encourage farmers to turn their slurry and crop wastes into biogas – a sensible and commendable idea – are instead being used to grow virgin feedstocks on the best arable land. Across the European Union, thanks to this perverse incentive, virgin crops (mostly maize) now account for 55% of all the feedstock being poured into biogas plants. Our soils are being torn apart for no good reason.

Soil erosion and an associated problem, soil compaction – mostly caused by using heavy machinery in the wrong conditions – is a major contributor to floods. Rain percolates into soils whose structure is intact, but flashes off fields where the structure has broken down, taking the soil – and the pesticides and fertiliser – with it. This means that the rivers fill up more quickly with both water and silt (which is what we call soil once it has entered a waterway). Siltation blocks channels and smothers the places where wildlife lives, including the gravel beds where fish spawn.

In some parts of Britain, soil erosion is now so severe that it causes floods without the help of exceptional rainfall, as saturated fields simply slump down the slopes into the houses below. In some places, soil compaction has increased the rate of instant run-off from 2% of all the rain that falls on the land to 60%.

All this is a result of a complete failure of effective regulation. The only rules that seek to protect soils in this country are the conditions applied to farm subsidies, which are called cross compliance. Just as social security claimants have to abide by certain rules in order to qualify for public money, so, in theory, farmers are meant to meet certain conditions in return for their much larger pay-outs. But while the rules applied to social security have been tightened to the point at which they have become degrading and oppressive, the rules attached to farm subsidies have been loosened by Defra, the environment department, until they are almost useless.

What they now amount to in practice is filling out the Soil Protection Review, a booklet or online form in which you state how well you are looking after your soil. Rural Payments Agency inspectors, whose job is to ensure that farmers aren’t taking public money while also taking the piss, visit 1% of farms a year, which means, on average, that a farm can expect a visit once every century. They seldom check whether there is any connection between what the farmer has written on the form and what is happening on the farm.

And even if there is a problem, they can’t do anything about it. As the Rivers Trust notes,

“the Soil Protection Review is an unenforceable mechanism because provided a farmer has completed his SPR, identified a risk level for each field and allocated the appropriate number of optional measures, he cannot be deemed non-compliant even if he is causing a significant soil erosion problem on his farm.”

You doubt it can be as bad as this? Then take a look at this exchange between two farmers on The Farming Forum:

Question: “Is the Soil Protection Review the biggest load of red tape codswallop that Defra have ever written? Farmers do have common sense, so this should be scrapped.”

Response: ” … The Soil Management Review is an entirely paperwork based affair that Defra invented to satisfy the EU that they were ‘doing something’ about soil management, without actually doing anything. In fact its an example of the UK civil service learning from our European cousins about how to play the EU system without hamstringing the people on the ground. … Defra only want to see that it’s been filled in, that’s it. They will fine you if you don’t so they can say to their EU masters ‘Look we’re enforcing the rules like you told us too’. But beyond that they pretty much let the farmers get on with it. They know we fill the thing in at the end of the year with any old rubbish – they don’t care, as long as the farm doesn’t look like a warzone. Its the ultimate in ‘We pretend to abide by the rules, and you pretend to enforce the rules, and everyone’s happy’ concepts. Take 10 mins to fill your form in once a year and be very glad Defra have decided this is the way to go”.

Yet even this is now deemed too onerous. Soon after it took office, the Coalition government set up a Farming Regulation Task Force, chaired by a former director-general of the National Farmers Union. I’ve come across plenty of self-serving reports by old boys’ networks, but seldom anything as bad as this. It insisted that “food and farming businesses must be freed from unnecessary bureaucracy”, by which it appeared to mean almost any regulation at all. “Government must trust industry … we suggest that Government should invite industry to play a leading role in drafting guidance.”

On protecting the soil, it had this to say:

“We recommend: that the Soil Protection Review becomes voluntary … not completing the Review correctly (or at all) should not result in a breach”.

In other words, give us the subsidies, but please remove the last remaining conditions attached to them. We want your money, no strings attached. Imagine how the government would respond to a report by ordinary benefit claimants, making the same demand.

But these are landowners, and an entirely different set of political rules apply.

At this year’s conference of the National Farmers’ Union, the farming minister, George Eustice, announced that

“I want to bear down on the burden of regulation today. We’ve just published the conclusion to the Red Tape Challenge on Agriculture. In total we will scrap 156 regulations and simplify 134 more. And we’re going to slash guidance.”

There will, he promised, be even fewer farm inspections (fewer than one per century, in other words). If, by some miracle, a farmer is found to be in breach of rules so feeble that they’re almost impossible to break, Eustice promised that they would lose as few of their subsidies as he could manage: “We are pushing hard at an EU level for sanctions and penalties to be more proportionate.”

That is the sum total of the protection given to our soils in the UK: no meaningful protection at all.

You may detest the European Union and all its works, but I think even the most indurated sceptic would struggle to explain what was wrong with the measures it proposed for defending soils. Since 2006 it has been seeking to extend to soil the same basic protections which now apply to air and water. To this end it drafted something called the Soil Framework Directive.

The draft directive asked the member states to take precautions to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to maintain the organic matter soil contains, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Terrified yet?

At the end of last month, unreported by any British newspaper or broadcaster, something unprecedented happened: a European legislative proposal was withdrawn. The Soil Framework Directive has been scrapped.

The National Farmers’ Union took credit for the decision.

“From the early stages of the negotiations on the draft Soils Directive, and since the halt on its progress at the end of 2007, the NFU has actively called for these proposals to be thrown out. Our long held and firm belief has been that there is no need for additional legislation in this area – soils in the UK, and across the EU, are already protected by a range of laws and other measures”.

For eight years the NFU and its counterparts in other European nations lobbied against the directive. They were supported by a small number of member states, led by the United Kingdom. Both the Labour and Coalition governments collaborated with the union on this project. Under these administrations, Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate, until it now stands for Doing Everything Farmers’ Representatives Ask.

Farmers’ Weekly, which must have forgotten that “British soils are reaching crisis point”, celebrated with the headline “Red tape victory as soils rules axed”.

The people who got this directive ditched claim to love their country. But they’ve ensured that it will continue to run down the rivers and into the sea. You want to get Britain out of Europe? Well how about ensuring that our soils stop ending up on the coastlines of France and Holland and Germany?

Where is the “range of laws and other measures” which, the NFU claims, already protect our soils? There are words on paper, but nothing that amounts to anything resembling actual protection.

So goodbye fertility. Goodbye to the land’s capacity to absorb and filter water, hold carbon and support crops. Goodbye to clean and healthy rivers. If the NFU and the British government had set out to damage the interests of this country they could scarcely have done a better job. Their work is a monument to short-termism and stupidity. Remember, next time you hear them say that Britain should produce as much of our food as it can, how they have helped to destroy our capacity to do so.

George Monbiot’s book Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life is published in paperback this week.