The United Nations has dedicated this year to a well-known substance that has incredible properties. The Soil Association’s Louise Payton digs deep.

Louise Payton

It can support buildings, filter and store billions of tonnes of water, provides a home for a quarter (PDF) of all species on earth, and is used to produce around 95% of our food. It’s soil, and this is the International Year of Soils.

The reason for this grand title is the need for food security debates to better recognise soil. Soil isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about food security, but incredibly, 25% of agricultural soils (PDF) are severely degraded. Every minute, an estimated area of cropland the size of 30 football fields is abandoned.

Copyright: NRCS Soil Health on Flickr via CC 2.0

Soil – stuff of life. Copyright: NRCS Soil Health on Flickr via CC 2.0

Researchers commenting on their recent paper in top journal Science state we may be reaching ‘peak soil’, where it is being lost at rates far in excess of the mechanisms by which it can be replaced. They go on to warn that falling soil health worldwide will soon threaten global food systems unless more is done to preserve the long-term viability of existing farmland.

No EU Directive for soil

I work for a UK-based NGO called the Soil Association, a charity which campaigns for good food, farming and land-use. Whilst we put soil health at the heart of everything we have done for the last 69 years – we have chosen this year, the Year of Soils, to launch a campaign specifically on our namesake.

My work on this campaign led me to discover just what we are facing in the UK. Data is fairly limited on soil, especially when compared to the data we have on water and air, but it is clear we have a problem.

Soil is often being eroded faster than it is being created. Levels of soil organic matter are declining, particularly in arable and horticultural farmland. A study in the southwest of England found nearly 40% of farms have visibly degraded soils. Another study found that farmers were degrading soils whilst allotment holders were able to keep soils healthy, containing 25% nitrogen and a third more soil organic matter.

Copyright: Matthias Ripp on Flickr by CC 2.0

Modern, intensive agriculture is often not kind to soil. Copyright: Matthias Ripp on Flickr by CC 2.0

Air and water may have their own EU Directives, but the UK, along with Germany and France, was one of the member states that blocked a similar directive for soils in Europe.

The main agricultural soil regulations in the UK are the simple cross-compliance measures that farmers are supposed to stick to in order to get their basic farm payments. They have recently been updated (PDF) for England by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). But in our opinion, whilst an improvement, still fall way too short.

This is a strange irony, because unlike many environmental problems such as climate change or water pollution, soil degradation directly affects the very people who cause it.

To some extent it is the short-term pressures that farmers face. Decisions based on long-term benefits may slip under the deluge of more immediate concerns – including simply producing high enough yields to meet pressing retail contracts.

But it is also cultural. UK farmers now tend to be reliant on chemicals – for plant nutrients, pest control – even to desiccate crops like wheat for harvesting. This chemical culture, supported by agro-chemical companies, ignores advances in agricultural sciences that highlight the importance of soil biology and soil organic matter.

Our policy suggestion for change

Thanks in part to the UN Year of Soils however, UK soils seems to be getting the attention they deserve. I’m witnessing collaborations between soil scientists, social scientists, agricultural researchers, NGOs like ourselves, and importantly, farmers and farming groups. (See these GFS blog posts by my colleague Tom MacMillan for more).

Copyright: FAO

International Year of Soils 2015 aims to increase awareness and understanding of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions. Copyright: FAO

But what about the role of government? We decided on a single ask to the UK Government that we think could really change things. Put simply, we want the government to commit to a target to increase soil organic matter in arable and horticultural farmland. Increase soil organic matter and you are more than halfway there to solving your soil health issues and ensuring long-term food production.

There is no magical number for this, but we settled on an increase of 20% in 20 years as a starting point, based on the average difference found in a meta-analysis comparing the soils of non-organic and organic farms (average difference for North-West Europe of 21%, but for the UK this was 50%).

What does the future of farming need to look like?

For years, scientists have known that there are simple steps farmers can take to increase soil organic matter. Organic farming practices achieve just that. These practices include: introducing crop rotations that include temporary grassland; using crops such as red clover, peas and beans to increase soil fertility naturally; growing green winter cover crops to protect soil from erosion and to add to the plant material returned to the soil; and returning animal waste to the soil as compost.

Copyright: ROBUST/Durham University

Collaborative work between scientists, industry and policymakers is needed to preserve and improve soil health. See video funded by GFS partner EPSRC. Copyright: ROBUST/Durham University

If the government commits to this target, they will need to encourage a system of farming that takes up more of these sustainable practices. These inevitably have multiple benefits reaching beyond just soil health – for example reduced sedimentation of water courses, improved resilience to intense rainfall and droughts, and improved soil carbon stores.

I have hope that researchers, farmers and other interested groups that value everything soil holds will get behind the simple idea that we need to increase soil organic matter levels in the UK. That way, hopefully, we can make sure we can stop degrading soils at the cost to tomorrow’s food security.

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About Louise Payton

Louise Payton is a policy officer at the Soil Association, the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use. She uses a background in ecology to work on a wide range of policy issues relating to farming and the environment, covering topics such as climate change, pesticides, farmland wildlife and food security. Before joining the Soil Association she worked for Natural England. She has a Master’s degree in wildlife conservation from University College London, and a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from the University of Southampton.

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