HC Deb 12 January 1971 vol 809 cc1-3W
Mr. Peter Mills

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects the report of the Agricultural Advisory Council's inquiry into soil structure to be published; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. Prior

The report of the Agricultural Advisory Council on the effects of modern farming on soil fertility and soil structure, which was commissioned by my predecessor at the end of 1969, is being published today. It is an important work of reference for all those concerned with the soil—farmers, landowners and workers, those engaged in research, development and advice, teachers and students of farming. We are greatly indebted to Mr. Strutt and his Council for their valuable work.

It is reassuring to find no evidence of damage to inherent fertility but everyone must be concerned about the Council's conclusions on soil structure. The troubles seem to vary according to soil and climate, farming practice and other factors. The report discusses them region by region. It tells us which soils are most at risk and why. The problems are worse moreover where drainage is inadequate or neglected. The special difficulties, to which the Council draw attention, associated with high stocking rates and poaching on poorly drained grassland in the wetter areas are disturbing.

Many of the problems are not new and there is already a good deal of knowledge of what needs to be done to avoid them or put them right. The report brings all this knowledge together for the first time. The Council emphasise that there is a great deal which farmers can do for themselves. The problems of the soil are very much those of the individual farmer.

Much is already being done. In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the dangers of some modern practices. A steadily increasing amount of field drainage is being carried out encouraged by the Ministry's drainage and advisory services. Their effectiveness will be further increased by the reorganisation of the Department's technical services into a unified Agricultural Development and Advisory Services (A.D.A.S.) as from 1st March, 1971. The report's recommendations regarding advisory work will be studied having regard to the future advisory role of A.D.A.S. Proposals and priorities for further experimental and investigational work will also be considered, in the light of the work that is already being done at the Department's Experimental Centres.

The report recommends a major campaign on drainage. This will need to be considered with the agricultural organisations. Much depends upon the finance, manpower and equipment available to contractors and farmers and the acreage of land economically worthwhile to drain. My Department's Land Drainage Division will be putting this in hand.

Some of the report's suggestions are the concern of other Departments; some concern the Agricultural Research Council or the Meteorological Office; others touch on the responsibilities of drainage and other local authorities. They will need to study them.

It is clear that most of the problems are long-term ones which cannot be put right overnight. There will be no immediate or spectacular improvement. But the problems are no less real for that. Fortunately there is little that cannot be put right or greatly improved by farmers themselves with patience and determination. The greater awareness of the problems which the Council's timely report must create will, I am sure, be a great help in this task.