Returning from Groundswell 2019, it is fair to say there was much learned with many inspirational open-minded people, mostly farmers, keen to learn, keen to share.  Being part of this wonderful collaborative ‘tribe’ of people was a privilege; to be on our shared learning journey, absent of egos.  It was refreshing and heartening, compared with other fora I have been in. In the last year or more I have been trying to knit together all I have learned and feed this into help make some suggestions into the Environmental Land Management Scheme.  A well-designed scheme could not only work for England but could lead the way for other nations to follow suit to support the transition to regenerative agriculture.  To do this we must understand complex international rules and design approaches that deliver not only the 25 Year Environment Plan, but also the United Nations Sustainability Goals.  Essentially, it could make all of us resilient both socially and ecologically within our one beautiful planet, where our food is sustainably produced while delivering public goods.  I can see how this could be done building on the knowledge, hard work and dedication of many brilliant people.

So, at Groundswell, the message was clear.  We need to save and improve our soils and we were there to hear and share how it can be achieved.  These 2 days were for all farmers, conventional, organic, regenerative, livestock, arable, all with one fundamental link – and the open mindedness to listen, lean and apply is what gave this wonderful atmosphere.  We learned that capturing carbon in soils was not only good for the planet, but also for productivity in the temperate zones. Joel Williams presented conservation agricultural principles and substantiated them with research papers that back up the three main principles:

  1. Minimise soil disturbance
  2. Maximise soil cover
  3. Maximise diversity of cover

Research showed that for soil to build carbon it needs to be well aggregated so that air and water can move between the particles.  To do this, research shows we need mycorrhizal fungi but every time we disturb the soil, we destroy these mycorrhizae. To change to this agricultural system, we need ‘tools’, Alan Savoury explained. Maximising soil cover reduces oxidation and reduces emission of Nitrous Oxide, Ammonia and other greenhouse gasses.  Interestingly Joel discussed new learning around the role of root exudates in the role of soil aggregation. Living soil roots help soils aggregate and are as beneficial as mycorrhizal fungi, exuding exudate in abundance before reaching flowering stage.  This means that if we want the soil to capture carbon, we need to have undisturbed soils, with living plants, where their lifecycle is reset by crop removal, ideally by livestock grazing.  He reiterated several times that living roots were far more beneficial than litter or above ground foliage in soil restoration. The third principle of conservation agriculture was the benefit of crop diversity in producing fungi, exudates and aggregation.

The message was clear that well managed land following these principles would have a positive effect on water percolation – recharging aquifers, helping water quality and reducing flooding.  But without these principles, water would simply run off, eroding soil, mobilising pollutants and flooding. This type of soil management enables productivity. Alan Savoury told us of the risks of a lack of management and the escalation of desertification due to a lack of grazing livestock as well as how ungrazed grass in the equatorial regions oxidises due to a lack of moisture which kills the grassland, leaving vast areas of bare ground that have a huge impact on CO2 emissions.  His view was demonstrably clear, after decades of work, that the planned management of livestock, mimicking the herds that once roamed the plains, grouping together in fear of predators, created the moisture and nutrient to sustain the grass through dry periods. The animals moved on as they soiled the ground and the herd moved on, thus ensuring that areas were rarely overgrazed, but left to recover until the herds returned. The covered soil, with productive grasses, helped water be absorbed rather than erode, making livestock essential as part of the water cycle. His theories make perfect sense to help these regions, and his view that we need to act now to enable areas across the equatorial regions of the world regenerate productive grassland should be treated as a global emergency.  Not only the impact of this oxidisation to degraded soil making a massive contribution to climate change emissions, but the impact on the temperate zones from the potential migration of people who can no longer support themselves as their grasslands die.   With livestock back in a well-planned system, grass can regenerate, water can become useful (i.e. percolates) and is not destructive (run off and erosion), enabling people and nature to thrive.  This should be a priority to support internationally, to address climate change and its impacts, putting carbon back in the soils of these regions, for the benefit of all.  There were any number of brilliant ways to measure soil carbon both with matrices, tools and gadgets.  I particularly liked the soil probe that measured soil fungi, which might be a proxy measure for soil carbon.

Alan also told us the temperate zones where we live have too much moisture to experience the same levels of oxidation, but the principles of enabling our soil management to enable carbon capture and boost productivity are the same.  We were urged though not to recommend or give a name to a process that everyone should follow.  We were told to promote the end need (i.e. carbon capture in soil) and encourage everyone to make a plan at their own farm and local level.  This plan should include cultural, economic and environmental practices as a triangle in its development and construction. The tools we then choose to deliver the outcome will then fit and be tailored to our own capabilities and situation rather and doomed to fail if based on other practices where the cultural, social and economic dynamics might be different.

The clear message was that for us to achieve increasing soil carbon and mitigating against climate change then it must include livestock. Managed vegetation creates the ongoing cycle of carbon capture and food production.  Though there was much support for woodlands within the system for stabilising soils, protection for stock from wind and weather, water cycling and capturing and cleaning air.  The Woodland Trust gave great support for agro- forestry and silvopastoral systems all of which should be supported.  So, our principles around our plan should include trees, and the diversity of products and services we can provide as land managers to enable us to be the guardians of the land, food producers, climate stabilisers and good business managers. Our added value products might be pasture fed beef and lamb, known to be better not only for the health of the soil, but the health of the animal and consumer.

Arable producers were shown an extensive range of direct drills, with innovation around how to grow crops without soil disturbance. Even No Till potato growing was demonstrated.  These high-tech precision tools raised many discussions around how best to remove cover crops ahead of planting using these drilling systems.  The benefits of Minimum or Zero tillage are well debated and the first principle of conservation agriculture. So, one of the discussions was around Glyphosate.  There were some interesting opinions – but the general consensus was that if invented now, it might be seen as the wonder input that would enable farmers to move through transition to rebuilding their soils.  (We estimate that soil biology, fungi, mesofauna and worms might take 7 – 10 years until ecological process might reduce the need for chemical inputs.)  If our farmers are to go on that journey then they need tools to help them move in that direction, one of which is currently Glyphosate. The problem as I said about Glyphosate was in my view, that it was supposed to be harmless, so people overused it, often with no protection. It was designed to break down to carbon dioxide, water and oxygen. But to do that it needs exposure to oxidation and bacteria.  The fact that it was termed as safe meant that it became used globally as a pre-harvest desiccant and extensively in parks and playgrounds, roads and railway stations, without much chance to go through this process of degradation, such that we all have traces of it in our bodies.  Interestingly there was reference to crops grown where Glyphosate had only been used as a predrilling preparation – there was no trace of it in the end crop.  So, the lesson to learn seem to be not calling something safe so that it becomes overused, but also that we don’t take away something that we might need (if correctly used) as another tool on our journey.

We built on our knowledge of the importance of herbal leys, building on the third principle of conservation agriculture, bring livestock back in the rotation and the incredible role that plants will play in the carbon capture and soil organic matter story.  Kings and Cotswold seeds both provided excellent stands at the show, demonstrating their ever-evolving knowledge of the inter-associations of plant species and how we can continue to develop the performance of cover groups and options for wildlife.  Interesting considerations around the Re- Wilding debate and how that might fit within the temperate zones, and its implications globally.  Synergies here with Alan Savoury’s concepts if applied in temperate zones, and more easily applied with the reintroduction of apex predators in Category 1 and 2 (IUCN) protected landscapes rather than our Category 4 and 5 landscapes in the western world, where often we have to act as the apex predator grouping animals to maintain healthy populations, not allowing over-grazing or abandonment.

There was of course discussion about the new Environmental Land Management Scheme. A subject close to my heart and the focus of much of recent endeavour for my colleagues and me.   The Minister, Richard Goodwell, standing in for Michael Gove gave some positive messages.  The design of ELM is to be, we are told, very much based on the learning from the ELM trials, of which we will be taking forward two, working with farmers and partners in the Upper Thames and the Somerset Levels.  He talked about support through transition, payments for maintaining the existing (options already on the ground and good quality natural capital) rather than paying just for additionality. We hope our relentless raising of our concerns of potential risk of the loss of 1.5m hectares of existing countryside stewardship options has got through. I was concerned around the discussion around payments being potentially still based around income forgone.  I will come on to explain why and how we can move away from this and become an international example to enable all nations to pay land managers for public goods, rather than income forgone.

There were also stands around evolving other mechanisms that might pay farmers in the future, such as Entrade, a platform that enables private sector companies like Water Companies to deliver specific outputs with farmers, an example being Nitrate reduction in Poole Harbour.  Also discussion around Green Bonds, Net Gain Biodiversity Mitigation – payments for habitat creation on farms, reduced tax for carbon capture and water cycling, a polluter pays principle or tax on all industries  (potentially including farming) on pollution of water, land and air that then creates a mechanism for paying farmers for carbon capture, water management and ecological recovery; Adding value to products that deliver multiple benefits like the Sustainable Food Trust Matrix,  Pasture Fed Livestock Association, Ecological Verification System and Linking the Environment and Food ( LEAF) assured products as some examples.

The second part of my write up can be found here.