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By Peter Melchett – 14 April 2015
Soils are magical and mysterious, essential to all life on earth, but extremely vulnerable, and being terribly damaged. We know enough about soils for them to fill us with wonder, but so little that they remain places of great mystery. We do worse than take soils for granted, we often behave as if soil, and particularly life in the soil, was not there at all.
According to a UK government report our soils have been ‘degraded’ because of ‘intensive agricultural production’, and we are losing 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil each year, costing the economy £45 million annually – nearly £10 million of which is lost food production.
The United Nations say that around 40% of all agricultural soils in the world are seriously degraded1, meaning droughts and floods have greater impact, and food production is at considerable risk. This wilful destruction is all the more incomprehensible and irresponsible, given that we know that it can take more than one thousand years for one centimetre of topsoil to form.
2015 is the United Nations’ Year of Soils, and the Soil Association is not marking this year by just talking about soils, but by campaigning and taking action to save our soils.
A key element of a healthy soil is the amount of organic matter it contains. Soil organic matter sustains the incredible variety and quantity of living organisms in soils, and allows them to hold water like a sponge, releasing slowly and helping to prevent or minimise flooding, and similarly to withstand droughts. Recent research found that invertebrates, including worms, have declined by around 45% over the last 35 years.2
Even more crucial to the survival of life on earth, organic matter in soils consists largely of carbon. Soils are the greatest source of carbon on our planet (more than all the forests). Soils can either release that carbon and act as a terrible instrument driving us towards catastrophic climate change, or take carbon from the air and store it safely in the ground. At the moment soils are driving climate change as we lose organic matter, but that destructive process can and must be put into reverse quickly. We must restore our soils to health by adding organic matter, so the first target of the Soil Association’s Soils Campaign is that we increase organic matter in UK arable soils by 20% over the next 20 years.
The UK has a legal obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, and a 20% increase in soil organic matter would be a very significant contribution from the food and farming industries towards achieving that demanding but vital target. We are calling on the UK government to set this target, and to work with farmers to achieve change. We will also look to the UK Parliament’s official advisors on climate change, the Climate Change Committee, to encourage government action on protecting and enhancing soil carbon.
How did we set this 20% increase in 20 years target, and is it realistic? 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 like 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 a compost.
A review of studies from all over the world demonstrates that organically managed soils have significantly higher levels of organic matter – in North-West Europe an average increase of 21%. While there have been only three studies in the UK3, the differences found here for arable soils was 50% higher.
This means that every farm we encourage to convert to organic production will be a huge boost in reaching the 20% target.
Reversing the decline in organic matter in arable soils, and starting to increase it will be a challenge, but 20% is still a realistic target. We think we could do better, maybe much better, and our 20 year target may well be too modest. The Soil Association is keen to hear if others agree or indeed if we are being too ambitious in our demand.
As our Soils Campaign continues, we will be identifying further actions that we believe are needed to save our soils. One is clear. For the last 70 years, farmers have been dumping toxic chemicals on their soils. Over the decades we have gradually come to understand the impact these chemicals have had on farm wildlife – many of what were our most common and best loved birds, from skylarks to tree sparrows, corn buntings to yellowhammers, have declined by 90% or more over the last 70 years, and we are still losing one breeding pair of farmland birds every minute.
We know agricultural chemicals are causing carnage to birds, honey bees, bumblebees and other wild pollinators above ground, but almost nobody has given a thought to the impact they will be having on life in the soil. We will be investigating, aiming to draw back the veil of secrecy over the impact of toxic pesticides on soil life and health.
Our soils are too precious to be ignored, wasted, chemically deadened and destroyed. The Soil Association will not only speak up for soils, but urge and take action to reverse their decline, and start the process of rebuilding that thin layer of living soil on our planet that all of us depend on.
Peter is Policy Director at the Soil Association.
- FAO 1995/U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- IUCN (Defaunation in the Anthropocene 2014)
- Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Switzerland October 2012