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« Soiled reputation | Main | HH Lamb's scepticism confirmed »

Deben diggin' in the dirt

Lord Deben has been speaking at a food industry conference, still exhibiting the pronounced eccentricity we have noted in recent months:

Lord John Deben, a member of the Government’s climate change committee, said there would need to be some ’fundamental changes’ in how the [food] sector operated.

A recent report by the committee warned the UK was in danger of seeing a reduction in productivity because of the damage caused by intensive farming practices.

Lord Deben said soils were degenerating ’so fast it is visible’.

"So far the agricultural community has been blind to what is happening.

"In 30 years the Fens will not produce because of what we have done to it," he said.

So fast it is visible eh? Sounds a little unlikely to me. And what is it that "we have done" to the Fens, I wonder?

Let's take a look at that report. On page 17 of the Progress on Adaptation volume we learn that:

Soils are being degraded in some areas due to land management practices. Soil organic carbon levels deteriorated nationally in arable soils between the 1970s and early 2000s. The on-going loss of lowland peat soils is putting at risk some of the most productive land and largest carbon stores in England. Today, only around 16% of the peat stock in the East Anglian Fens recorded in 1850 remains and much of this will be irreversibly degraded in the next few decades if current land use practices continue. As well as impacting on food production, this scale of carbon loss will also have implications for meeting the UK’s carbon budgets.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you find on page 151 the following:
The available evidence suggests that soil organic carbon is declining nationally in arable soils... Estimates vary but soil organic carbon has been flat or declining over the period from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. There have been particularly marked declines in the most carbon-rich soils, such as peat. The National Soil Inventory reported a decrease in soil organic carbon of about 0.7 grams per kilogram per year in all soils over the period from 1978 to 2003. Although losses on arable soils were lower at around 0.4 grams per kilogram each year, supporting analysis found more significant losses of over 5 grams per kilogram per year on the most carbon-rich arable soils.[31]
The Countryside Survey for England found a decrease in soil organic carbon of about 3 grams per kilogram per year across soils currently under arable and horticultural production. Unlike the National Soil Inventory, however, the Countryside Survey found no significant change in soil organic carbon across all soils for the period from 1978 to 2007.[32]
So some people are finding declines in arable and increases elsewhere. Some are finding small decreases across the board. "So fast it is visible" therefore looks like overreach to me.
As for the Fens, I get the impression that "what we did to them" means converting them to agriculture. Whether this is a substantive point is open to question. In time the pressure on agricultural land will start to decline - particularly if idiot environmentalists and complicit governments choose to steer clear of biofuels - and we might see the Fens revert to nature.
Moreover, if Fenland soils really are going to be exhausted in 30 years' time, it would be showing up right now now in prices for farmland. The headline in this article therefore implies that Lord Deben is talking out of his hat.
No change there then.

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Reader Comments (27)

Considerable damage is being done to farmland soil by the growing of maize to use as fuel in anaerobic digesters. Maize does not have deep roots and the plants are grown far apart, hence rapid soil erosion. More damage caused by "climate change" mitigation.

Jul 15, 2015 at 11:43 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

talking out of his hat?

through his trousers morelike.

but yes - no change there.

Jul 15, 2015 at 11:48 AM | Registered Commentertomo

this sounds like he is rehashing Monbiot (ref soil degredation, 60 years, etc)

Ben and I (mainly Ben) took apart the Monbiot article here:

Jul 15, 2015 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Sounds like we need more carbon!

"the agricultural community has been blind"

He's an arrogant berk, isn't he? Farmers know nothing about farming, obviously.

Jul 15, 2015 at 12:02 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Thankfully, Google Earth shows the manure that Deben adds to the prospects for Fenland farming.

It remains green.,-0.0479503,73081m/data=!3m1!1e3

Jul 15, 2015 at 12:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

Well, if you build access roads and plonk thousands of tons of concrete as foundations for wind farms it would reduce the fertility of any stretch of land. And let's not mention the loss of birds and bats which will encourage plagues of insects etc.

Perhaps the answer Lord Deben is seeking is to remove those killer blades and send the nacelles to metal recovery, and adapt the towers to be homes for wild life.e.g. bird nesting at the top, bat roosts inside and feed troughs for swine at the base.

Jul 15, 2015 at 12:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterGraeme No.3

I thought I would check this and good God, the man is correct.
I went outside and looked at the soil. It looked like dirt.

Jul 15, 2015 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered Commentertoorightmate

So no chance of crop loss due to frost damage then.

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:02 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

I thought that the agricultural land of the Fens was created by draining low lying salt- and fresh-water marshes near sea level. Shouldn't his much vaunted global warming take care of reinstating it to its former condition?

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:08 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Much as I like to disagree with Deben, he has at least a little bit of a point here. The fens are quite different in aspect to the way they were in the seventeenth century. The land is ten feet or more lower than it was. Of course active peat is largely water so when you drain it, it dries, and consequently shrinks. It collapses under its own weight. When waterlogged, the processes of decay are arrested (that's why peat is peat and is almost entirely organic). When drained, aerobic respiration goes on and the organic plant remains are progressively broken down - yes, ultimately to CO2. Drive tractors on it, plough, etc, and the situation is exacerbated. Soil also is to be seen blowing away on windy days. A far cry from the fens as they were.

That's why the land level in the fens is so much lower than it was. Drainage is no longer by gravity but by pumps. This is also why scare stories about the effect of sea level on the fens are nonsensical. It's already reliant on pushing water uphill.

The contentious point is the extent to which the destruction has completed or is on-going, and whether it really will cause problems for agriculture.

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Farming bodies have been well aware of the problem for over 40 years.

Gummer reveals his ignorance in coming out with such stupid pronouncements.

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterBillB

"He's an arrogant berk, isn't he? Farmers know nothing about farming, obviously."


Greens really think they know all about farming.

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterHugh

That's always the point. Farmers are messing it up, so London must run the farms.

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

Deben regularly talks out of his hat, when he is sitting on it.

He ought to spend more time bull sitting in the Fens, to restore organic content.

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:56 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Ban all carbon based foods!!

Jul 15, 2015 at 7:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Silver

Maybe he did catch mad cow after all from those burgers he was feeding his granddaughter all those years ago to prove it couldn't be transmitted to humans, because all the Govt. Scientists said so at the time (all but one that is)

Jul 15, 2015 at 7:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterBLACK PEARL

Lord Deben really ought to be honoured with a more tribal name such as Chief Sitting With Bulls.

Jul 15, 2015 at 10:56 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Instead of Deben, shouldn't that be Drebin, of "Naked Gun" fame and note that it's an anagram.

Jul 16, 2015 at 3:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn McLean

I agree with Jit, the land level is much lower, partly because of drainage but also from loss of topsoil being blown away. 40 years ago I recall seeing wartime pillboxes around the Boston area with their foundations exposed to a depth of about 2m.

Jul 16, 2015 at 4:58 AM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

As usual, the arrogant twit Deben has cause and effect muddled and has missed a raft of facts. I was taught long ago (in High School, more than sixty years ago) that draining the fens did more than just remove the water.
Once again as usual, farmers get no credit for holding and using a lifetime of information: civil servants and superanuated politicians are, of course, experts in every passing topic they turn their hand to.

Jul 16, 2015 at 6:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

I am sure that I don't know the answer to this. What we do know is, farmers of yesteryear let some of their land lie fallow - soil must be allowed to replenish itself, flooding helps and growing certain nitrogen rich plants [genus trifolium a good fall back], micro organisms vital and ever so useful invertebrates. The one thing we do know, soil is not an infinite resource and intensive farming methods exhaust soil more quickly - phosphates help but the structure and make up of the top soil is eventually degraded, a dust bowl is created.

It is vital for all of humanity - to understand the science of soil.

I wonder, did the Fens at one time, for periods - were they allowed to be re flooded and at times of the year - in spring/ Autumn/winter?

Jul 16, 2015 at 9:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Regarding the Fens drainage was seen then and by most people now as a considerable benefit. The drained Fens are some of the most productive agricultural land in Britain employing over 27,000 people and providing 37% of English grown vegetables, 24% of potatoes, 20% of sugar beet and almost 40% of the flowers.

Prior to the drainage malaria was endemic in the fens and the area was considered dank unhealthy marshland where only the poorest and most miserable would choose to live.

The drainage always required pumps, you can still see the remains of many of the wind pumps that were being installed right t the beginning by the Dutch engineers who carried out the drainage work.

Jul 16, 2015 at 10:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterKeith Willshaw

Athelstan asked

"I wonder, did the Fens at one time, for periods - were they allowed to be re flooded and at times of the year - in spring/ Autumn/winter?"

They still are in many districts, some fenland roads can be closed for months due to flooding in winter an its common for local radio to read out the lists of such closures. Fortunately to date planners have been able to restrict development in such risky areas although some of the recent developments along the Cam and Ouse seem to be courting disaster.

Jul 16, 2015 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterKeith Willshaw

First time poster here but regular lurker – often re-directed from Anthony’s
My credentials = a Farmer, livestock in NW England.
Deben is right.
Research to do:
Read and digest Montgomery’’s book ‘Dirt – The Erosion of Civilisation – get it free from here:
Maybe also, Lierre Keith’s ‘The Vegetarian Myth’
Then ponder why the Keeling Curve ramps up just when it does, at the end of WW2 with the arrival of shed-loads of nitrogen fertiliser, previously used for munitions. Same stuff.
Also around the same, large farm machinery leaving huge swathes of dark-coloured land surface bare and exposed to the sun. What would that do for albedo and subsequent temperatures?
Maybe consider chlorophyll as nature’s or The Planet’s sunscreen – the same energy of sunlight that creates living plant material just as easily destroys it when it’s dead (not protected by the chlorophyll) Is that a possible source for CO2.
Consider what soil bacteria do and what is their limiting nutrient (I’ve told you already)
Do as I do and ask any farmers you meet, just ask them this “How does nitrogen fertiliser actually work?
How does the growing of annual crops (wheat, corn, rice etc) different from how The Planet, even recently was when covered by perennial plants. Especially how does their consumption of CO2 vary on an annual cycle (back to the saw-tooth pattern in the Keeling Curve)
Then, maybe get yourself a cheap little CO2 meter off ebay, a dustbin and a stopwatch then go out into your garden or a farmer’s field and see what you can record. Do this at various times of the year. Repeat with (as best you can engineer) a transparent dustbin/bucket, again atin different seasons and especially different times of day.

You may just come to the conclusion I did – all that extra CO2 in the sky is actually coming out of the soil and Deben, in a peculiar way and without even realising it, is on to something.
Something very big and quite scary and right back to a repetition of what Montgomery’s book describes, except this time its global, not local.

Jul 16, 2015 at 10:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeta in Cumbria

I wonder how valid this research as it has a start date of 1978. At that time and in subsequent years there was a common practice of burning off the stubble which caused a significant reduction in organic material and thus carbon in the soil.

That began to change in the early 1990s (from memory) when stubble burning was outlawed and stubble was ploughed back in. Previous research in Germany had demonstrated how this significantly improved the soil structure and organic content in just a few years.

I suspect that soil analysis with a start date around the mid 90s would show a progressive Increase in soil carbon content (organic matter) - by 2000 that may not have been enough to restore it to pre 1978 levels but I wonder what a survey today would show? My gut feeling is it would show very healthy and increasing levels on cereal producing land.

Jul 16, 2015 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger

It must just be a co-incidence, surely, that The Archers is running some kind of storyline about soil degradation just now.
"If you keep growing just Maize you're going to ruin this farm in a few more years...."
Pure co-incidence.

Jul 16, 2015 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Davis

Roger, unfortunately surveys don't support that notion - Prof Bridget Emmet's Countryside Survey, published in 2010 by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, shows carbon in arable soils to be almost unchanged between 1978 and 2007, which covers the time of the switch from burning to incorporating most straw. This has been confirmed by work at Rothamsted by Andy Whitmore's team who has shown that straw incorporation raises soil carbon by very small amounts before reaching a new equilibrium - it's not a cumulative effect - largely because ploughing it in also results in big losses in sequestered soil carbon.

Jul 16, 2015 at 9:02 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor

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