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Soil & Climate Change Top Agenda for IFOAM

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European Organic Group Visit UK

This year, the UK was invited to host the IFOAM EU Farmer group annual meeting for the first time. We worked with OF&G to organise the visit which consisted of a farm tour on Wednesday, a day of group business on Thursday and a public meeting the Friday.

We quickly agreed on Reading as our venue as delegates were coming in from all over the EU. In total more than 25 farmers and staff from organic farming associations from 11 countries joined us. Our theme for the visit was organic farming and meeting the challenges of climate change.

Green manures, pigs and trees: Farm visits

The theme guided our choice of organic farms to visit. We started by visiting Iain Tolhurst at Hardwick. On his holding he is producing fantastic quality vegetables as well as high yields on his system where 35% of the land is in green manures at any one time. As Ian said the system is now working so well that he is producing as much food as he would have done on his whole acreage from just the cropped area. The only input (other than seeds and labour); which come onto his farm is green waste which he composts over the course of 15 - 18 months before applying to soils. He is also trialling the use of ramial compost from his hedge cuttings;   it is early days to say what impact this is having on soils.  Iain’s system also includes beetle banks and alley way trees. The visitors were blown away by the quality and quantity of produce he is able to grow on his system.

Next on the itinerary was Eastbrook farm, where the group heard about the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) over lunch. This is a calculator and toolkit produced by farmers for farmers to help them to understand what constitutes their farm’s carbon footprint and provides recommendations on how to reduce it. FCCT is currently working on a project to monitor soil health including SOM over time whilst tracking soil management practices. This will help us to understand the impact of management on soil health. After lunch the group visited the Eastbrook outdoor pig enterprise and the new agroforestry enterprise where they heard about the plans to introduce alleys of trees of different species into grassland on up to 200 acres at Eastbrook. The aim is to benefit from the products from the trees, such as fruit and nuts as well as timber, whilst the trees themselves support improved soil health and carbon sequestration. There could even be new spin off processing businesses for some of the tree products being grown.

Our final stop for the day was Sheepdrove where we were welcomed by the farms new manager Richard Morris and heard more about the work of the Organic Research Centre on agroforestry from their researcher, Jo Smith.

Strategies for mitigating climate change

On Thursday the climate change challenge theme continued as we heard more about the Strategies for organic and low input farming to mitigate and adapt to climate change (SOLMACC) project which has been running since 2013. The project works with farms across Europe to monitor a range of climate friendly farming practices to measure their beneficial effects on carbon sequestration and reduction of GHG emissions. Lin Bautze from Fibl, one of the projects lead researchers shared her experience from the project including the climate friendly farming practices examined. These include:

  • Optimising nutrient management
  • Optimal crop rotations
  • Optimising tillage
  • Agroforestry

Just by composting FYM before application, it is possible to significantly reduce GHG emissions.  Fibl has calculated that by adopting organic agriculture it would be possible to reduce GHG emissions by 17% (Muller et al 2016).

The group then worked on prioritising policy requests to the EU. Top requests included:

  • Setting up long term plans for agriculture and food to 2050 for climate action , which had targets and milestones
  • Put climate and environment objectives ahead of maximising food production
  • Establish a complete national inventory of emissions from production and consumption
  • Reach sustainable levels of livestock production and support sustainable diets and demand side measures. This will need to establish the role of ruminants in soil health promotion as well as looking to adapt monogastric diets away from arable crops towards waste and free range based diets
  • Strengthen support for sustainable farming practices that provide public goods and allow for climate change mitigation and adaptation

Public Defra commitment to soil and organic farming

On Friday the Soil Association and OF and G hosted a stakeholder meeting at Reading town Hall. We were delighted that the Mayor of Reading was able to welcome our visitors and set the scene for a fascinating debate about how organic farming can play a significant role in mitigating the impacts of climate change. During the morning we heard from the Defra minister George Eustice who took parts of his presentation from Sir Albert Howard’s book on soil as well as pledging financial support to enable all farmers to learn from best practice in the organic sector and to commit that soil health will be at the heart of the new 25 year environment plan for the UK. Following presentations from researchers demonstrating the impact of wider scale adoption of organic farming we heard from three organic farmers who are doing this on their farms. One word sums up the meeting for me: soil.

Watch the Eustice video here>