Today, people across the globe are joining forces in an appreciation of soil. For three decades the fact that World Soil Day even exists has slipped under my radar, but this year I’m following it with interest. Why? Because this year I’ve come to realise; conversations about soil are some of the most vital conversations we need to have.
Most of us probably don’t talk about – or, for that matter, think about – soil on a regular basis. But, when you do think about it, you start to appreciate the influence it has for every one of us every day. That influence was set out perfectly for me by environmental activist Satish Kumar, who I had to pleasure of hearing speak some months ago. His message was this: ‘we are all soil transformed’. That might sound like a slightly eccentric statement but, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. As humans we rely on food to give us the energy and nutrition to survive, and food comes from the soil: the vegetables and fruits we eat grow from it; the meat we consume comes from animals that graze on grass or feed on grain that grows from it. So, by default, we rely on the soil for our very survival.
Given recent evaluations, that leaves us in a bit of a quandary…because, in their current condition, our soils will only last another seventy harvests. Industrial pollution and intensive agriculture are killing our soils: they are compacted, lacking in organic matter, and eroding. It takes a thousand years for one centimetre of fertile topsoil to form but we’re losing multiple thousands of square metres of it by the minute. Climate change will make that worse; extreme weather conditions will mean more erosion in hotter and drier seasons and more soils being washed away in heavy rainfall. Given that soils act as a carbon store, they should be helping us in the fight against climate change, but we need to start looking after them if we want them to look after us.
Soil is a complex thing, full of life, from bacteria to bugs, all working together to break down and revitalise the earth and maintain nutrient levels. When soil is healthy this ecosystem works in harmony and has the ability to do what it needs to, but when we introduce an imbalance we can throw the whole system out of line: whether that’s the addition of chemicals, the compaction of the earth through heavy machinery, or the removal of nutrients at too high a rate through monocropping, not looking after the soil can significantly reduce its performance. And that has a knock-on effect on the whole food and farming system.
I speak with plenty of farmers in my day-job, and soil health is a popular topic of conversation. Soil is a farmer’s most precious asset: their livelihood depends on their ability to grow crops, and the healthier the soil the healthier the harvest. I’ve come across lots of farmers, both organic and non-organic, who are exploring new methods for building resilient healthy soils and seeking ways to reduce activity that has a negative influence. Their reasons for doing so are varied: some have been proactively tending to their soil health for years; some have seen a reduction in productivity and are looking for a fix; and some are facing the uncertain future of agrichemicals and recognising soil health as critical to a good yield. Their levels of commitment differ too, with some looking for a quick fix or temporary measure while others have built their entire growing system around their soil. While it’s encouraging to see this activity taking place, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s enough…or whether something more strategic needs to happen in order for us to make a real difference.
Encouragingly, it seems that Government are upping their game too. George Eustice recently stated that soil will sit at the heart of post-Brexit agricultural policy, indicating a wholesale review of our existing soil management techniques and a renewed focus on environmental improvement. Just days later it was announced that mandatory soil testing will come into force next year as part of new rules to protect the water environment from chemical run-off. And, of course, we have heard several times from Michael Gove that revamped payment schemes will reward farmers who demonstrate environmentally-friendly practices – of which protecting, and improving, soil health is one example. It’s a clear directive that a discernible commitment to soil health will soon be an imperative, rather than an autonomous, action.
It will be interesting to see just what the new agricultural policy looks like, and how far it goes in outlining and incentivising healthy soil. But considering the influence of soil on food security, climate change, and the future of agriculture, it seems clear that the emphasis on healthy soils needs to be robust.
By this time next year, I’m hoping that World Soil Day might be more than just a day of appreciation and campaigning….perhaps we’ll also be celebrating turning a corner towards healthier soil, and perhaps we’ll be enjoying a slightly better outlook on the future for one of our planet’s most precious things.