Last week, I welcomed Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to Soulton Hall near Wem where Tim Ashton has been trialling no-till farming in cooperation with soil experts from Harper Adams University.
No-till is the practice of growing crops without damaging the soil through ploughing. Cover crops are encouraged to thrive through the winter and then sprayed off before direct drilling. This method has reduced costs by 60 per cent, making Shropshire wheat competitive with Kansas, Argentina or Australia. It also brings massive environmental benefits dramatically increasing organic activity within soils including a vital increase in earthworms, which would otherwise be killed by ploughing. Above ground the increase in food has led to remarkable gains in fauna such as a striking revival of barn owls and skylarks.
Soils managed with no-till farming suffer much less compaction and greatly improve water filtration and storage. This reduces floods and soil erosion.
However, the weedkiller glyphosate is critical for no-till producers, providing an effective way to eliminate unwanted plants without the need for aggressive ploughing, which does so much harm to soil.
Without glyphosate, fighting weeds will be much more expensive and more damaging to the environment. It has long been regarded as the most effective herbicide available and, as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board concluded, “the widespread use of glyphosate in no-till practice does not appear to be an environmental problem”.
Calls for glyphosate to be banned in the European Union have been driven by a study undertaken by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which said it was ‘probable’ that glyphosate is carcinogenic. Under these claims, sausages and sawdust would count as carcinogens. Such claims have been denounced by scientific studies and regulators.
Questions have thus been raised surrounding the legitimacy of the IARC’s findings, and yet the European Parliament still went ahead last week and voted for a ban. If imposed, this would make British farming less competitive and less environmentally friendly – just as we seek out new markets when we leave the European Union at the end of March 2019.
Innovative British farmers, such as Tim Ashton, look after over 70 per cent of our land. We must continue to support them in their science-driven efforts to put more British food on the table by allowing them to adopt successful technologies which grow food in an environmentally beneficial manner.