HL Deb 01 March 1944 vol 130 cc1049-72

VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE rose to ask His Majesty's Government, what steps they are taking, by making provision for larger supplies of fertilizers and/or by prescribing different methods of husbandry, to maintain the ebbing fertility of the farm lands of Great Britain, with a view to the continued maximum output of home-grown food both during and after the war; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I think I can best preface the observations I propose to make in submitting this Motion to your Lordships' House by reference to two remarkable speeches which were made eleven days ago, one by the Minister of Agriculture at Taunton and the other by the new Minister of Food, Colonel Llewellin, at Oxford. Mr. Hudson, in addressing a large gathering of farmers at Taunton on February 19, said that last year they had increased the arable acreage by over 1,000,000 acres, and there had been a total increase over pre-war of nearly 5,000,000 acres in arable and over 4,500,000 acres in the tillage area. He stated that this area must be maintained if it be not actually increased. Then he is reported as follows: The stricken peoples of Europe were crying out for food, and food would be short—very short—in the world. British agriculture would not, therefore, be able to case up, and that was why last summer he had announced a four-year production plan which would carry them up to the harvest of 1947. One of the greatest shortages of food in the world would be meat and fats. British soil and climate were particularly suited for the production of live-stock products, and one of the objectives, therefore, would be to make a gradual change of emphasis from the production of crops for direct human consumption to an increase in live stock and live-stock products.

On the same day, the Minister of Food made this corroborative statement: We cannot go on very long being dependent on the charity of our friends. In that connexion, I have no doubt that he referred very particularly to the splendid contribution to our food requirements of the United States of America. Take the supply side of the food picture. Looking round the countries engaged in this war, you will find that they are getting less and less from the land every year and the supply position becomes tighter as the war goes on. There will be a world shortage of. some foods for several years after tile war is over. He ended by saying: For three years at least we shall have a shortage of meats and of all dairy products. It may take us five or more years to get up to equilibrium on these particular supplies.

I am going to submit to your Lordships that we cannot satisfy our own post-war food requirements as well as the crying needs of the enemy-occupied countries unless we make good serious soil deficiencies, the chief of which are undoubtedly humus on the one hand and phosphates on the other. On December 9 last, as your Lordships may remember, I intended to initiate a debate on phosphate deficiency in our farm soils; but, as this date was required by the Government for the second day of the debate on Reconstruction, I starred the three questions which I had put upon the Paper with this object, and received oral replies, with, of course, no subsequent debate. To the first two I propose, inter alia, again to refer. The third related to serious phosphate deficiencies in Australia and New Zealand, which I do not propose to follow up to-day, except to thank His Majesty's Government, and incidentally the Government of the United States, on behalf of my friends at the Antipodes, for such help as they are able to give in this connexion. I think that I ought to add, in case your Lordships are unaware of it, that the most serious soil deficiencies in New Zealand, and also in parts of Australia, are phosphate deficiencies. The people there normally apply a very large amount of superphosphate and basic slag to enable them to get such a manurial balance, in their pastures in particular, as to make it possible to furnish to this country the large amounts of meat and dairy products which they normally provide. I may also remind your Lordships that the two islands from which they derive their phosphates, Nauru and Ocean Island, have been for a long time past in the occupation of the Japanese, and it is only thanks to supplies coming in limited quantities from Florida, and to some small extent from North Africa, that they have been able to dress their fields with 43 per cent. only of their normal dressing.

My inquiry of the Government to-day is of somewhat wider scope; it relates to the whole problem of the maintenance of the productivity of our soils here in Great Britain. Apart from the physical condition of the soil, which is influenced mainly by the presence of sufficient humus in it, and, of course, micro-organic activity, your Lordships are aware that the main contributors to soil fertility and productivity are nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash. Potash, of course, is the least essential of these three manurial requirements, although in certain areas, and particularly on light soils and for crops such as tomatoes, potatoes and the like, it is essential; but potash, although the least essential, is the most difficult to obtain, because the bulk of our potash requirements is normally obtained from Germany. Nitrogen is now the most readily available of the three. We no longer depend, as we used to do, upon Chilean deposits, which used to furnish the greater part of our nitrogenous fertilizers. As your Lordships know, nitrogen can now be obtained from the air, through synthetic fixation by electricity. It is also, of course, obtainable in a smaller degree by the nitrogen-fixing capacity of the root- nodules of all leguminous crops, such as clover, lucerne and sainfoin.

Phosphates, which are usually applied in the form of superphosphate, basic slag, and ground phosphatic rock, are in a very different category. They are essential to the ripening and the quality of all roots, fruits and cereals, as well as to the production of meat and milk. That is one of the reasons why I read just now a quotation from the recent speech at Taunton of the Minister of Agriculture. The bone structure of all farm animals is largely composed of phosphate of lime. This animal requirement, if I may so put it, has a very particular bearing upon the production of protective foods, which, as I understand, are going to be regarded as the main desideratum for the production of our own soil in days to come. The cumulative effect of the non-application of phosphates to cultivated land is of all these factors the most serious, and is most conducive to plant starvation and also to deficiency diseases. This is especially so in the case of permanent pasture. This was recognized by the Government—and I want very much to emphasize this—in the years immediately preceding the war by a very special drive or campaign to induce farmers to apply basic slag to all their permanent pastures. They provided a special subsidy for this purpose. Well, their present policy is the exact reverse. No basic slag or other phosphatic fertilizer is to-day available for unploughable permanent pasture. The practice of applying phosphatic fertilizers to grassland, except for temporary grass, is, in fact, forbidden by the Government.

My first question to the Government on December 9 was directed to the general problem of phosphatic deficiency, and particularly with regard to this embargo as affecting detrimentally the phosphate-starved grassland of this country. The noble Duke's reply was to the effect that broadly speaking, as he put it, the cultivated land of Great Britain is not suffering from serious phosphate deficiency, although the available supplies of phosphatic fertilizers are insufficient to permit of optimal dressings of this fertilizer. This reply was to some extent reassuring, although to my mind at any rate not wholly convincing. And may I say at once that I realize quite as much as any of your Lordships can do the seriousness of the shipping problem? Although there are immense quantities of phosphate rock at present awaiting shipment in Morocco, in Algiers and in Tunis, that natural phosphatic material cannot be shipped in any large quantities to other countries; but in passing I may mention that Portugal is receiving, as I understand, quite appreciable quantities of those phosphate deposits. Well, no one would grudge—certainly I would not grudge—to our oldest Ally any phosphates that we can spare from our own essential requirements, but I do venture to suggest that our people here at home should have at any rate a fair share of those North African phosphates, at least on a par with our Portuguese Allies.

My second question on December 9 had particular reference to basic slag, which by the way, as your Lordships know, is a by-product of the open hearth system of steel manufacture, and I lay particular emphasis upon this because it does not require ships to carry it from its source to the land of this country. Incidentally, it has another great merit—namely, that, unlike super-phosphate it has a high lime content. Bearing in mind how sour a very considerable portion of our grassland is, particularly in Wales and the West of England and in areas of high rainfall, basic slag is of very special value as a source of phosphate at all times, and particularly at present. The noble Duke's reply to this question of mine relating to basic slag was to the effect that the whole of the basic slag that is suitable for grinding is already being utilized as fertilizer, and that steel manufacturers were being given encouragement in the production of this by-product by a subsidy of £65,000 a year to secure them against commercial loss consequent upon its grinding and its bagging. He further stated that production cannot be increased except by the grinding of low-grade slags, which would not justify the present cost of material and labour required for the operation. I beg with all respect to question the full accuracy of that statement. He added the hopeful assertion that, while the use of basic slag on phosphate-starved pastures was then still forbidden, it was hoped that there might be a sufficiency of phosphatic fertilizers in 1943–44 (which I take to be the period through which we are at present passing) to provide a limited quantity to be applied to phosphate-deficient grassland that is used primarily for milk production.

The Minister of Agriculture not very long ago gave as his estimate of the area of unploughable permanent pasture that it was no less than six million acres, that is, leaving out altogether what are known as rough grazings. My present Motion will, I earnestly hope, evoke from the Ministry of Agriculture and the noble Duke some more definite assurance on this subject, in face of the steadily ebbing fertility of our cultivated land, and in view of the vital importance of continued, and indeed augmented, output of human and animal food in order to satisfy the requirements during the war, and still more, after it, both of our own population and those of enemy-occupied and semi-starved countries, as well as for the full implementation, so far as Great Britain is concerned, of the decisions of the Hot Springs Conference—and, I suppose I ought to add, the contemplated programme of U.N.R.R.A. I want in passing to say this. Pre-war supplies of phosphates are no criterion whatever of present requirements On the basis of food output the need justifies something like treble the pre-war supply.

My submission is that the most clamant and growing needs of British soils—and it applies also to some extent to those of the Antipodes—are humus on the one hand and phosphates on the other. When I was an agricultural student at England's then premier agricultural college more than fifty years ago, we were instructed that farmyard manure was a complete fertilizer. The scientists have thought better of it since then, and we have been perpetually reminded that farmyard manure—and the same applies to stable manure which, by the way, is very deficient in quantity now owing to the supersession of the horse by motor traction— has an adequate content of nitrogen and also of potash, but not of phosphates. The wise farmer, even if he has a sufficiency of farmyard manure, will always add phosphatic fertilizers in order to obtain a complete fertilization of his soil. Let me put in perfectly simple language what has been done these last three years. Vast areas of pasture land, some of it temporarily enriched by the basic slag pre-war policy of the Government, have been ploughed up and successive cereal crops taken from them. These crops—let us have no hesitation in admitting it—have been fed with both humus and phosphates by the ploughedin turf, and with each year that passes there is a steady depletion of both humus and phosphates, the latter being absolutely essential to the production of both milk and meat.

I see the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, is once more in his place in this House. May I offer him, on your Lordships' behalf, a very warm welcome back from his 7,000 miles agricultural tour of our premier Dominion, Canada? I noticed that in a public statement which he made last week on his return, he called attention to what I may describe as the very level quality of the cattle to be found in Canada, both meat cattle and dairy cattle—a tribute which I, from my own experience of Canada, can well confirm. Exactly the same thing can be said of the cattle of New Zealand, which, of course, I know even better. It is one of the sad facts one has to admit that our cattle, very largely owing no doubt to the use of second-rate sires on the ordinary farms of this country, are of nothing like so high and level a standard as those which are to be found in many other parts of the British Empire. May I be allowed to add that the quality of cattle in Canada and in New Zealand is very largely due to the fact that they recognize that, in order to maintain high quality and economically productive live stock, you must have enough phosphates in the soil.

I remember perfectly well that some years ago, when with the British Association I visited the University and Research Station of Saskatoon—I do not know whether the noble Earl visited Saskatoon in his recent trip—I found they were laying the greatest emphasis on two points. One was the enormous importance of lucerne or, as they call it across the Atlantic, alfalfa, as the greatest and most valuable of all fodder crops, hardly to be found in Great Britain, or at any rate only in very small quantities, and especially the value of frost-resisting lucerne; and the other the absolute necessity of a sufficiency of phosphates if you wish to maintain the quality of live stock. The Minister of Agriculture is initiating a campaign for a large increase in our live stock—the backbone of British agricul- ture. It has always been the backbone, it is the backbone to-day, and as far as I can foresee it will always be the backbone of British agriculture, and the main source of our all-too-scarce protective foods. His professed object is to furnish adequate supplies not only of liquid milk and milk products, but also of meat which cannot now be supplied in sufficient quantities from overseas. Without increased dressings of phosphates and lime such a programme appears to me to be wholly incapable of fulfilment. Even the body structure of our farm animals cannot be built up without lime and phosphates. The lack of phosphates, by the way, hits hardest the small dairy farmer, especially in the West of England and in Wales, who has little or no arable land, even in war-time, and whose pasturage is undeniably phosphate starved.

I am assured by experts, contrary to the opinion quoted by the noble Duke on December 9, that even basic slag of low solubility, if it has a high phosphoric acid content, is well worth the cost of grinding and would be of great value, especially to the small dairy farmers. That is exactly the experience in the North Island of New Zealand, where large quantities of basic slag of low solubility but of high phosphoric acid content are being used in those areas of high rainfall. There is another factor of which your Lordships ought to be reminded. In the old days we used to have rotational cropping, perhaps the Norfolk four-crop rotation being the most popular. One result of that four-crop rotation was to maintain in the soil, to a great extent, both the humus and phosphates from the residues of the different crops entering into their normal rotation.

I want to put certain suggestions to the noble Duke and his Department. First, that a seeds crop—that is, of course, clover and rye grass—should be sown in all white straw crops, including wheat, this coming spring, and if it be not maintained as a ley be ploughed up after the corn harvest in order to augment both humus and natural nitrification. Secondly, in the absence of farmyard manure and stable manure, green manuring with mustard or lupins or vetches be definitely encouraged if not actually insisted upon, as also the sowing of lucerne as a continuing crop providing concentrated protein food for all classes of live stock. As I have mentioned before, in every civilized country except Great Britain, it is acknowledged as the most valuable of all fodder crops. Thirdly, that the ban on the application of phosphatic fertilizers to unploughable pastures be now lifted and their use be authorized and encouraged so far as they are available. Fourthly, that as the basic slag grinding plants are mostly old and getting out of repair with consequent reduced output per unit, further grinding plants be provided to steelworks at the public expense. Then, fifthly, that as in the opinion of many agricultural chemists basic slags of low solubility but with a good phospheric acid content can be used with great benefit on grassland, particularly in an area of high rainfall, their production and sale should be authorized and their use encouraged at the present crisis even if the cost of production is not financially a sound economic proposition. What is a sound economic proposition in these days of subsidies and bounties and controlled prices? That at any rate is an argument that carries no conviction to me. If there is, as I believe, a crying need for this low-grade basic slag, and as there seems to be some doubt about the justification of this course, I think that the Ministry might usefully institute an independent expert inquiry into the matter. I suggest that possibly Sir John Russell, the former Director of Rothamsted, who is now free from all official duties, might well be asked to conduct such an inquiry.

Sixthly, that so far as available shipping tonnage permits every opportunity should be given to transport to Great Britain increased quantities of phosphate rock from North Africa for conversion into superphosphate or for use after grinding in its raw state. And lastly, in the light of recent discussions in this House and in the Press, there should be an immediate and impartial investigation into the question whether chemical fertilizers are in fact inhibiting the natural fertilization of the farmlands of this country, and particularly whether the salutary activities of earthworms in promoting soil fertility are, as alleged by Sir Albert Howard and others, checked if not stopped altogether by the use of sulphate of ammonia and other nitrogenous fertilizers, whether associated with lime (or chalk) in its various forms or not.

In conclusion I would ask, can we confidently face up to our national obligations and commitments arising out of the decisions of the Hot Springs Conference unless we tackle now with courage, determination and vision this vital problem of the ebbing fertility of the farmlands of Great Britain? Our farmers, in face of many handicaps and under the powerful direction of the two Departments of Agriculture and of our war agricultural executive committees, have done their full share in saving this country during this critical period from starvation. They have indeed fed us generously with home-grown food. But is it at the cost of serious prospective soil exhaustion and future food scarcity? If so, I venture to suggest that posterity will be our unmerciful critics. We have been definitely promised by the Government after this war a healthy and well-balanced agriculture as a permanent part of our national economy, bat how can our agriculture be healthy and well-balanced if the soil upon which it is based is unhealthy through lack of humus and is ill-balanced in the supplies of its essential manurial constituents? I beg to move.


My Lords, the noble Lord has called attention to a matter which is undoubtedly of first-rate importance as affecting our agriculture if in the post-war years we are to continue to provide increased food supplies from our own country and to take our share in what will be the efforts of the Allied Nations afterwards. I would like to say that I am glad he emphasized the necessity of the importation, so far as shipping makes it possible, of the phosphates from North Africa. I must say that it has been a puzzle to me why it is that ships coming from that part of the world, where we know there is a large quantity of this material awaiting shipment, should not have been able to bring more. No doubt it is a question which the Ministry of War Transport and Shipping have considered and I am sure the Department of Agriculture have represented their case. I hope that as a result of the noble Lord's speech they will represent it with increased vigour. I cannot but think it should be possible to ship more of this valuable material.

But I confess I am not so lacking in confidence for the future as the noble Lord seems to be. I think that this country has only yet begun to tap the unused fertility of its own soil. The thing that impresses me more and more, as one sees this from the inside every month or almost every week, concerns what we have neglected in this country in times past and what we can do if we will. I have no doubt myself about our being able to maintain very many more herds of live stock in this country quite successfully by using scientific methods, at the same time, of course, making use of the phosphates to which the noble Lord referred. I am sure everyone of us who is associated with this work in the country knows of the wide extent of pastures which, whatever may have been the fertility of the land, were often very indifferent grasslands carrying a very, very small head of live stock. Now, after they have been ploughed up and by the use of the splendid knowledge which is made available to us as to the proper kinds of grasses to sow (after very likely a period of cereal cultivation), they are producing herbage capable of carrying three and four and many more times the head of live stock that they were carrying before.

We see that almost everywhere, and the acreage of neglected grassland in this country still untreated is prodigious. I myself, for example, visited a place only about two or three weeks ago where, on the other side of the road, there were large fields of the kind I have described. Each of them was about 30 to 40 acres in extent. Adjoining them was another. In that case the farmer had ploughed the field at his own expense. He had not taken a cereal crop, but had directly re-seeded the field under the advice of the scientific experts provided for him. I do not know what head of live stock the land on the other side of the lane would carry, but it would be very few indeed, whereas this farmer was provided with splendid herbage for his milk cows. By a little scientific cultivation he was carrying certainly four times as many live stock on that field as his neighbour on the other side of the road. I am emphasizing this side of the case only because I think we should be committing a serious error if we allowed ourselves to think that we are draining away the fertility of our land as much as some people may think. In the land of our country, if it is scientifically treated in the light of the knowledge we now have, apart from the knowledge we shall acquire, there is a reservoir of fertility still unused that is almost incalculable.

I am not a pessimist in this matter. But in saying that I am well aware that in regard to land that has been used we must have phosphates. I heard the other day of a farmer who for several years, I am sorry to say, had neglected live stock altogether, as he should not have done. He had sown trefoil and other seeds with his corn crop and ploughed it right in. He had also rolled his straw and ploughed that in. At all events he had no shortage of humus. What I fear is that in emphasizing the need for these supplies of phosphates—I am not in any way modifying my support of the noble Viscount—we may distract attention, as we ought not to do, from the necessity of making full use of our land. I think that the postwar demand will certainly be for greatly increased supplies of milk, and increased supplies of meat will follow in consequence. I believe that if the grasslands of this country are properly treated with leys, as they are now beginning to be treated and will be treated in the four-year programme of the Minister, we shall have abundant humus and shall be bringing into use for the first time an amount of fertility hitherto unsuspected. For many years to come I shall be perfectly hopeful of results if the right methods are employed.

Like the noble Viscount, I am sceptical of some of the things we are told about the land being poisoned. I must say that one or two noble Lords have told us things which are to me entirely unproved assertions. It is clear that land requires humus, and it is quite possible to provide it and it should be provided. But when we are told, as we are sometimes told, that these fertilizers are poisoning the land, and that in consequence we are getting food which is deficient in this or that ingredient, I confess I feel we are listening to statements which have not been proved. They may be true, I do not know, but at all events they simply have not been proved. So far as I know, there is no evidence to show that wheat grown on land treated in this way is lacking in any ingredient which it otherwise would have contained if fertilizers had not been put on the land. Whether the Minister of Agriculture thinks these assertions require a Royal Commission to inquire into them is for him to decide, but for my part I should want more evidence before I appointed a Commission for that purpose. The noble Earl, Lord Portsmouth, will follow me, and will be in complete disagreement with all that I am now saying, but while supporting him to the full as to the necessity of providing humus in the soil, I do beg the champions of this particular doctrine not to mislead the public by asking us to accept a series of statements of an exceptionally serious character when, so far as I know, they are not filly established and there is no proved evidence for them.

We have, in my view, available with our present knowledge, if it is applied, a capacity in this country of rearing a much greater quantity of live stock, and I hope it will be of a much better quality than hitherto. On that I would say that I hope the efforts of the Ministry to induce farmers to use a better kind of sire for their cows and to breed no longer from indifferent animals will be very energetically pressed forward. It is because of that that the quality of the Irish stock has improved, and we ought to do much more in that direction in this country. We can and do produce the finest live stock in the world, but while you can see magnificent live stock in one parish you can find farms in the adjoining parish with live stock that one would be ashamed to put into the market. I hope that the noble Duke when he replies will tell us that the Ministry will energetically press forward their effort to induce the county war agricultural committees to do all they can to encourage the use of proper sires.


My Lords, I think we are all indebted to my noble friend Viscount Bledisloe for having initiated this debate. He has already said so much on the subject of fertilizers that there is very little to add. It would be impossible for me to add to his knowledge or wisdom. The noble Lord who has just spoken—I do not know whether he wanted to draw me into a diversion— must, I think, have been speaking in terms of his own county, as many people are inclined to do. His own county before the war was almost entirely grassland. Therefore reserves of fertility in that county are likely to be very high. But there are other counties where the position is exactly the opposite. However, I do not intend in this debate to deal with the question whether or not artificial fertilizers do harm to the soil. I am content to leave that to the long verdict of time.

There are, however, two points which I should like to bring to your Lordships' notice, and which I think are very serious as a deterrent to fertility in the future. The first is the danger of desiccation through the intensive cropping of our land while, at the same time, we are of necessity spoiling our woodlands by cutting for war-time purposes. In the exigencies of war, we have not only ploughed up many millions of acres but forced all our ploughlands, quite naturally and rightly, to bear the largest possible crops; and, again quite naturally and rightly, in order to achieve this we have made the maximum use of the artificial fertilizers that were available. Unfortunately, we have been short of potash, and so we have got out of balance by the extra use of sulphate of ammonia. This must mean a very high degree of transpiration of water from the soil to the plant. An acre of cabbages can transpire every day three tons of water into the air from the soil. At the same time that we have been doing that, we have been rapidly consuming the existing available reserves of humus in the soil. Labour difficulties, lack of machinery and emphasis on immediate production have all rendered it extraordinarily and increasingly difficult to return to the soil the organic wastes which we have taken from it. The countryside is littered with unused straw ricks, just as most farmers' yards are still littered with old iron. For our safety I think that we should do today everything that is in our power to return to the soil, in such a period of intensive cropping, all the animal and vegetable wastes of the farm, and by no means neglect any opportunity of returning the wastes of the cities wherever it proves possible to do so.

The importance of humus in this problem of desiccation is that humus has a water-holding capacity which is about eight times that of sand and four times that of clay. The humus under the forest lands of the world provides much greater reservoirs of water than any engineering works which man can possibly achieve; nothing we do can come near it. It is true that in our ploughlands and ordinary open lands the humus content is not high; perhaps on the best land it is about 10 per cent. The water within the soil, however, is affected not only by the direct water-holding capacity of the humus but by the general porosity of the soil which the presence of an adequate amount of humus ensures. The reasons for this it would take too long to go into, but I think that is an accepted fact. It is noticeable that the low water-table and level of our springs and wells which are most affected by the existing drought and water-shortage occur, generally speaking, in the areas where the most intensive cropping has gone on from the beginning of the war, and indeed before that—the big arable areas. One wonders whether that water shortage is entirely due to deficient rainfall for a couple of years, or whether there is a deeper and more serious reason connected with this exhaustion of humus as well. In my own county I have seen many successive dry seasons, but never have I seen anything like the low level of the wells at this time of the year.

I should not like to be thought to be taking too alarmist or far-fetched a view, but it is worth inquiring into the moral of the Fens. In the Fens there is a sinkage in the vegetable fens going on at the rate of three-quarters of an inch to an inch a year. As against the adjacent silt land, there is known to be a difference now, through that sinkage, of something like fifteen feet. To-day little claying is being done, and we are not returning the wastage in the form of humus through dung and so on, and it is reckoned that, in spite of the £2,000,000 drainage scheme to overcome the dangers already apparent through this sinkage, that scheme can last only for sixty years if the sinkage continues at its present rate. I do not say that this is entirely due to cropping and extraction of humus, but it is a vicious circle—more cropping, more transpiration, more drying out of the peat land, and therefore more sinkage and more wind erosion. It is really like the Sybilline Books, in its way.

This particular form of shrinkage is happening throughout the world, where-ever the same problem is occurring. I should like to read an extract from a report made in 1941 by a most authoritative and well-known American agricultural sociologist, with regard to the Scioto Marshes in Ohio: It took almost a hundred years of intermittent effort, in the face of great difficulty, to drain the Scioto Marshes in Ohio—17,000 acres of the richest farm land in America. While the reclamation projects were not finally completed until about 1922, considerable headway had been made by 1907. As the marshes were drained, onions became the dominant crop, yielding as much as 1,000 bushels an acre…In the years from 1929 to 1934 a crisis had developed in Hardin County. The land had been cropped continuously with onions for years and, as the soil became drier each year, the depth of the muck decreased. It shrank from a depth of eight and ten feet to two and three feet. Continuous planting of onions developed fungus and insect growths; and the blowing and burning of the soil decreased its fertility.…Stranded on the marsh to-day are about three hundred 'poor white' families. For them the marsh has become a rural dead end, from which at the moment there is no escape. As onion production has decreased, employment opportunities have dwindled. That, I think, is the logical result of paying insufficient attention to fertility as against output; for the fertility potential of humus is inextricably interwoven with the water-holding capacity of the soil.

That is one aspect of the problem, but there is another, of quite a different nature. For my part, I can see few better ways of immediately wrestling with this problem of fertility than that advocated in the Government's four-year plan for ley farming and increased live stock of all sorts. I believe that we should make every effort to re-establish not only our beef and milk cattle but also sheep and pigs on the land at the earliest opportunity. Apart from certain difficulties of supply, which are well known to your Lordships, I think from personal experience in meeting farmers all over the country that there is a danger that the four-year plan may not reach fruition, if it does at all, in time to have the full effect which it should have on fertility.

I believe that His Majesty's Government could do a very great deal to set one's quite natural fears at rest if they could tackle the problem of the immense capital required for this change-over in farming in most parts of the country. Farmers are faced with three separate difficulties. First of all, they were, by common consent, very much undercapitalized in 1939. Since then their need for working capital has been at least doubled. We know also the extraordinary price to which implements have gone, both old and new, and in general it is safe to say that, very rightly, agricultural wages are double what they were in 1939, and that means double the working capital to carry on. Secondly, the already undercapitalized farmer, to meet the requirements of food production, has had to undertake the very heavy cost of mechanization at inflated prices, and he has not got the implements which are perhaps best suited to his knowledge, or to his land or to his needs and methods; he has had to take what he could get, and when he could get it. The third difficulty which he is up against is the new Schedule D assessment of all farmers with an assessment of over £100 a year. This means that farmers on most of our land—not the majority of our farmers—have not been able to put aside from their profits enough to meet the demand for the new working capital required, nor for the mechanization required also; and I know myself many good fanners who never had an overdraft in their life before who now have got one.

If the four-year plan is really to be implemented I feel there are only two alternatives to make it succeed. Because there is a new outlay of capital once more required. It falls both on the farmer and on the landlord. On the farmer, generally speaking, falls, first, the cost of putting-down long leys, which comes quite easily to £6 an acre if he is going to do the job properly. Secondly, he has to provide wire for fencing; and thirdly, in most cases he has to increase his stock himself. He has got to get more stock, and I most heartily concur with what was said by both the noble Lords who have spoken, that that stock will have to be improved. And it will be that much more expensive to buy or to breed. If that is going to be the case, according to the amount of stock the farmer will have to purchase to make the four-year plan really successful, the new capitalization which he will require for these improvements will be anything from £5 to £15 an acre. On the other hand, the already hard beset landowner is in most cases faced with problems of new and extended water supplies, the cost of fencing material, and farm buildings very often. Neither farmer nor landlord is enabled to keep out of his taxed income anything like enough to meet these new demands. And these improvements are not unrisky. It is true that we are promised a small return of tax at the end of the war, both as farmers and as landlords, for what might he called deferred repairs. But what is wanted is capital now. We cannot wait for an indefinite to-morrow.

I respectfully suggest that perhaps the simplest way of meeting costs—costs which are, after all, almost entirely incurred to feed this nation, would be to allow expenditure on approved and earmarked improvements as against taxation in relation to the four-year plan. If you cannot earmark money out of pockets which would otherwise be taxed for this necessary improvement, then the only other alternative is the provision of adequate capital at the lowest possible rate of interest in the near future, both for the farmer and for the landlord. But this carries a corollary. Far too many farmers look back to 1939 and before and realize what a sorry tiling it is to be in the hands of the banker when there are unstable prices and fluctuations from day to day. Even in 1941 there were literally millions—something like seven millions, I believe—of farmers and their families in the United States living in squalor and poverty unbelievable as a result of lost fertility and foreclosed mortgages. So if the farmer is going to be forced to borrow money, then the four-year plan can only succeed if the Government can come out into the open with a post-war programme—something more than the four-year plan, so that the good farmer will have a guarantee that his outlay will not be wasted. I think it is hopeless to expect that, with the insecurity and low capitalization of 1939, you will get, after 100 per cent. inflation, the "promised land" in 1947. In one of our more intellectual weeklies I found not long ago a phrase whose pedigree might be described as by Gilbert out of Bloomsbury: "Let the farmer beware not to bite the hand that feeds him." Let us as a nation beware not to bite the soil that feeds us.


My Lords, I would like, first of all, to thank my noble friend who has put this Motion on the Paper for his courtesy in giving me beforehand certain information on matters on which he required answers. When such an expert as he speaks in this House on the subject of the soil and its fertility, I can assure him that information which he tenders to me beforehand is extremely welcome. I think it would be best if at the outset I dealt quite briefly with certain questions which the noble Viscount, as he mentioned himself again this afternoon, asked, on the 9th December last, and then came to the various points which have been brought up in the debate. I stated on December 9 that, broadly speaking, the cultivated land of Great Britain is not suffering from any serious deficiency of phosphates. I also stated that there were particular areas where there is some marked deficiency of phosphates, but remedies and special provisions have been made to provide supplies of this type of fertilizer. The supply of the nitrogenous fertilizers is satisfactory and, apart from the difficulty in transport, which must from time to time arise, it should not be difficult for farmers to get all the nitrogenous fertilizers that they require. War conditions have imposed a shortage in supplies of potash, but arrangements have been made for the distribution of fertilizers containing potash or for straight potash fertilizers to ensure that those crops for which dressings are necessary receive a reasonable quantity. While conditions of transport will inevitably affect the supplies of all kinds of fertilizers now and in the near future, it is reasonable to suggest that the supplies will be adequate for 1944, and at any rate they will not be less great than in 1943.

In reply to the second part of the question, the Government do not consider that, taking Great Britain as a whole, fertility has been lost. In fact, large areas have greatly improved in this respect by mechanical cultivation, drainage, and liming. There are, we all know, individual districts and farms which have been heavily cropped during the last few years, and much of the fertility stored up in grassland has been expended. Steps have already been initiated to encourage the return of straw to the land to expand our live stock and to increase the area of seeds and temporary leys in order to restore humus and build up fertility where necessary. These steps, I am sure, have the support not only of the proposer of this Motion but also of your Lordships' House. The area under temporary grass has been increased in the last two years by no less than 700,000 acres, and it is expected that there will be a further increase in 1944. This development in itself will permit an increase in the numbers of cattle and sheep, which the Department are making active preparations to encourage as far as the situation allows.

The noble Viscount in his opening speech referred with some doubt to the future, and the noble Lord, Lord Addison, we might say, disagreed with him. None of us could possibly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Addison, when he talked about a future increase and also an improvement in the quality of the live stock of this country. I have little doubt in my own mind that a large increase in the quality of our live stock will be possible before many years, and I believe that if we set about it in the right way we can bring that about far more quickly than some people believe.

The noble Earl, Lord Portsmouth, very kindly wrote and asked me about the matter of taxation. If I may, I shall give him a question and answer in another place yesterday. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked if he will adjust farmers' Income Tax so as to make some allowance to compensate them for the dissipation of their capital by the exceptional use of the store of fertility in their land in the present emergency. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer replied as follows: I cannot see my way to propose an allowance such as is referred to by my honourable and gallant friend. I may remind my honourable friend that any manuring expenditure that may be necessitated by loss of fertility would be allowed as revenue expenditure as and when incurred. Whether the noble Earl will be satisfied with that I do not know.

The noble Viscount who moved this Motion has raised certain specific points. I was glad to note that he favours the increased under-sowing of seeds, whether to be left as a ley or subsequently to be ploughed in, but I do not agree with his suggestion that this should be made compulsory in the cropping of 1944. There are many considerations which practical farmers will appreciate, and the House will agree with me, I think, that persuasion and education are more suited generally to farming measures than is compulsion. We should only use compulsion in these matters when the necessity of the nation demands it. The same remark applies to the practice of green manuring. It is often a useful practice, but it is not always so, and here again discretion should be left to the individual farmer. As regards the noble Viscount's remarks on the growing of lucerne, there is no doubt that a great deal of good can be done by an extension of the growing of this crop, and steps will be taken to see if it can possibly be encouraged.

I now turn to the suggestion that the ban should be lifted on the application of phosphatic fertilizers to grassland. Perhaps the noble Viscount has not quite appreciated that county committees have already been instructed that they may sanction the use of these fertilizers for permanent grassland which is used for grazing dairy cows. If the phosphates were available we should lift the ban altogether. No one would dispute the importance or value of phosphates on grassland, and this was fully recognized in the Land Fertility Scheme. The reason why the ban cannot be lifted entirely is one which is no doubt well understood by the House. The supply of phosphates, though greatly increased, was not sufficient to meet all the demands, and it was necessary to get an immediate return from the supply available. If we put phosphates on to ploughed land they get down to the roots of the crop in the first year, and the benefit is made available immediately. If, on the other hand, phosphates are applied to established grassland, it may be two, three, or even four years before any benefit is received.

I do not propose to make any comment on the suggestions thrown out with regard to increased supplies of basic slag through the renovation of plant and the utilization of lower grades of slag. Neither can I touch on the point of increased quantities of phosphate rock. These matters, as I said earlier, are irretrievably bound up not only with shipping but also with the internal transport position. Transport is an overriding factor on the whole of the fertilizer position to-day and no further remarks of mine can, at the present moment, help. But the suggestions that have been made will naturally be borne in mind as and when facilities may offer themselves.

Finally, I would return to the noble Viscount's suggestion in the Motion as to the ebbing fertility of the land. I have already indicated that if we regard England as one large farm then no one who travels round the country, as I do, could possibly think that the fertility from that farm was inadequate; in fact, far from diminishing, I think it is fair to say that it has increased. I agree that no one can doubt that certain farms and certain fields have expended their reserves of fertility in the prosecution of the war just as many of us in other forms have had to expend a certain amount of our reserves of capital. I do not think it is right that it should go out from this House that His Majesty's Government consider there is any foundation for the noble Viscount's gloomy forebodings regarding the fertility of this country either now or in the future.

Knowing as I do the noble Viscount's interest in the great work done at Rothamsted, I would like, if I may, to quote an extract from an article published in the current number of Country Life by a distinguished member of the staff there. He says: There are those who speak and write as if there is a sharp and violent antithesis between the so-called artificials and the organic manures. In actual fact, of course, this is not the case. In all intensive practice both types are used and it is widely recognized that the presence of an adequate organic content of the soil may render more efficient the action of the added inorganic fertilizer. I consider that to be an admirable summary of the whole issue. I think we are all agreed that we must use every means available to us to maintain the fertility of the soil, but the programme of the four-year plan, as outlined already by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, is the policy which we hope will maintain a proper balance between live stock and crops together with a proportionate use of fertilizers. We agree that the fertility of the soil of this country is of paramount importance to the future production of food, and I only hope the noble Viscount will feel slightly more happy as a result of the answer I have endeavoured to give him.


My Lords, I do not know that there has been any marked increase of felicity on my part over the reply made by the noble Duke. I can only venture to say this. He has referred to my gloomy forebodings. I cannot help wondering whether some five or ten years hence what has been described as gloomy forebodings may not be spoken of as a certain measure of practical vision. At any rate I would suggest this. If we are going to pull our full weight in making good the prospective deficiencies of food in other countries than our own, and also bear in mind the probability that we shall not ourselves be able to get the same proportion of our food from overseas that we have had in the past, then we ought to do everything in our power without appearing in the smallest degree complacent. Judging by the considered views of scientific experts in every part of the world, we ought to do what we can to make preparations for a full measure of food output from our own soil, if only to fulfil the obligations we have made to those unfortunate people who are threatened with starvation in enemy occupied countries.

In this connexion I would venture to remind the noble Duke and the Ministry of Agriculture that New Zealand and Australia have provided a very large proportion of the food on which we have subsisted in this country in the past, and I wonder whether the noble Duke has read the so-called gloomy forebodings that they are giving utterance to on this very same subject, but if he has not I commend to him a perusal of Government Reports emanating from those sources. Soil phosphate deficiency in those countries is becoming very grave and unless it is improved we cannot expect to get imported into this country, and still less rendered available for the half-starved countries of Central Europe, supplies of meat and milk products, butter and the like, that have been forthcoming from those countries in days gone by. We ought to regard ourselves as one unit for this purpose and be treated as one unit. I think any independent expert would admit that we cannot afford to be complacent in this matter.

I have only one further remark to make before sitting down, and it is in regard to the contribution to the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Addison, who has given as his opinion that there are huge untapped reserves of fertility in our own soil. My answer to that is very simple. You cannot, in the matter of mineral requirements, win by cultivation and management what is not there. The only statement made by the noble Duke which is of abounding felicity and comfort is the fact that the area of ley land has been increased apparently during the last year or two by no less than 700,000 acres. That is an effort that is bound to contribute to the increased fertility of our land, and if he, with all the influence which he and his chief possess, can manage to raise that to at least 1,000,000 acres of ley during the next twelve months I, at any rate, will feel very much happier than I do at the present time. I beg for leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to