The security of regenerative farming

British farmers have decried one of the worst harvests on record. British soils have not been able to weather the storm; excess flooding has drastically impacted British agricultural output. This not only drives imports and therefore prices but exposes Britain to further international supply chain shocks. 

Regenerative farming is the best-known way to boost soil health, and therefore water filtration potential. By pivoting to regenerative farming practices, British farms can not only future-proof our harvests against increasingly wetter and warmer winters but boost British carbon sequestration potential too. However, to do this, farmers need comprehensive financial incentives enshrined in policy.

Recent floods across the UK have had a disastrous impact on the country’s farming sector. In the UK, 1,696 mm of rain fell from October 2022 to March 2024, the highest amount of rainfall in recorded history. As a result, wheat production is down 15 per cent, Oilseed rape is down 28 per cent, winter barley is down 22 per cent.

Boosts

In fact, analysis by the ECIU has found that exports of wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape may be down by 4 million tonnes, compared with the 2015 to 2023 average. In fact, the amount of arable land left unsewn has rocketed by 80%, compared with 2023. 

Britain will therefore become more reliant on food imports this summer. According to the UK government, half of British food is imported. However, according to HSBC analyst David McCarthy, the figure is closer to 80 per cent.

This will invariably have an impact on the cost of food at home, further exacerbating the cost of living crisis. The same ECIU report states that as a result of this wetter weather, there is a real risk that beer, biscuits and bread could become more expensive. This alone should be enough to warrant the attention of the average Brit.

Yet beyond the sheer cost, this makes Britain far more vulnerable. By importing more of its food, Britain exposes itself to further global supply chain shocks. As geopolitical shocks continue to rattle Europe, exposure to more erratic food exports will only further threaten British food security.

Britain imports 30 per cent of its food from the EU. This will only become harder, and more expensive, as Brexit import charges get implemented. Growing food domestically boosts our food security, which in turn helps to keep costs low, helping us to avoid supermarket shortages.

Buffer

This wet weather has been driven in part by climate change. However, degraded British soils are less resilient towards droughts. According to one study, 38 per cent of arable soil in the UK is now degraded, meaning that its structure has degraded and fertility has been depleted, usually as a result of insufficient organic matter.

This meta-analysis shows that regenerative farming practices can boost soil structure, which makes them productive, and resistant to floods.

The science is quite simple. Microbes like bacteria, protozoa and fungi and other higher trophic level organisms such as earthworms help in building soil structure by creating soil micro and macroaggregates. These soil structures are important to enhance porosity, thus increasing infiltration and reducing erosion and runoff.

Similarly, higher levels of organic matter in our soils help to maintain soil cohesion, which in turn, reduces the likelihood of erosion from heavy rain or winds.

Healthier soils also help with root penetration. Deeper rooter penetration not only boosts soil structure, but also boosts organic matter in our soils as old roots decompose. Beyond that, organic content in soils acts as a buffer against pH changes in soils. This is especially relevant with the increased amount of fertilisers being used in modern farming practices.

Transition

This is where regenerative farming practices help. Practises such as no-till farming, cover cropping, crop rotation, livestock integration and the addition of organic compounds have all been shown to boost and protect the levels of organic content in soils, which in turn, can boost soil structure and therefore water filtration.

Finally, regenerative would not only be a sensible response to climate change, it can also be a solution. Our soils are the second-largest carbon sink in the world. 

While degraded soils emit carbon, healthy soils, rich in organic matter, absorb carbon from the atmosphere. In this regard, regenerative farming presents a double-win for Britain. It gives up the opportunity to shore up our agricultural industry while reducing the British carbon footprint.

In short, maintaining soil organic matter is the single most effective thing we can do to make our soils more robust in the face of floods. 

If Britain wants to support its domestic agricultural industry, then it must promote policies that will help to keep organic matter in the soil to a minimum of three to six per cent, based on regional conditions. This transition will only be possible if farmers have the financial backing and support to move forward.

This Author

Raveena Sridhar is the chief technical officer of the Save Soil Movement.

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