It’s time we stopped treating the soil like dirt..
Without efforts to rebuild soil health, we could lose our ability to grow enough nutritious food to feed the planet’s population. The world needs topsoil to grow most of its food – but it is rapidly disappearing and degrading.
Three years ago Michael Gove the then environment secretary in a landmark speech on the environment, considered it to be an emergency – “a country cannot withstand the loss of its soil fertility”. “if you drench soil in chemicals that improves yields … but ignore fertility, ultimately you are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that,” said Gove. The UK is thirty to forty years away from ‘eradication of soil fertility’ – in inherently poor soils the time frame may only be ten years.
Soil is pretty remarkable stuff. It provides 95% of our food , helps regulate the world’s atmosphere and is a bigger carbon sink than all the world’s forests combined. In fact it basically enables all life on land to exist. Made up of a mix of materials broken down from rocks and minerals with organic matter and water holding it together to support life – earth worms, insects, and thousands of micro-organisms. Something so vital to our life that we don’t even think about it is probably why we are doing such a bad job protecting it. We have been taking out more than we have been putting in – if year on year we don’t return 30% of organic matter to the topsoil we get soil degradation. The organic matter is the glue that holds together all of the soil ingredients stopping them blowing or washing away, and preventing the captured carbon escaping into the atmosphere.
Soil is alive but we are killing it
In terms of food farming – stop digging up the soil – no more ploughing. Hill Farm and Down Farm on the Ashridge estate both practice some form of no-till farming known as conservation agriculture. Ploughing has been around for a long time but it gradually destroys the soil structure by exposing the worm population which is responsible for the aeration of the soil, digesting organic matter making it available to the farm crop. It also brings weed seeds to the surface. Fallow fields are no longer a feature of the modern intensive farming landscape. The aim is to keep the land surface crop-covered at all times.
After a harvest the land is scarified to break up the surface matter and allow direct drilling of the next crop at the same time. With an ideal seed bed the new crop germinates and grows quickly and stifles any arable weeds – no need for herbicides, fewer pesticides and less chemical fertilizers – the soil becomes more fertile all the time from not being disturbed. A build up of organic matter at the surface hoovers up huge quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere helping to reduce climate change.
Conservation agriculture has been growing world-wide in the last decade but UK farmers have been slow to change from traditional methods – we can now look forward to fewer sterile fieldscapes!