While some headlines are warning us that the state of our soil is now a serious threat to the environment, others are saying that good-quality soil can help save the planet. So what exactly is going on and how can you help?
Let’s Talk About Soil
Soil plays a major part of supporting life on earth. It is all around us. In our gardens, parks and farmland, beneath our feet and below our pavements. And yet this extraordinary and valuable substance is often dismissed as just dirt.
While we all understand the importance of oxygen and water for our survival, many overlook the importance of soil. However, we rely on it in just the same way.
- FOOD: Soil produces 95% of the food on earth: the crops we eat and plants to feed animals for meat. In short, without soil, we would cease to survive.
- HEALTH: The healthier the soil, the healthier the food. A recent study of 650 carrots found that carrots grown in healthy soil contained up to 90 times more antioxidants and up to 200 times more polyphenols than those grown in less healthy soil. These protective substances are only found in plants and are fundamental in maintaining our own health.
- CARBON: Plants need minerals from soil and carbon dioxide from air in order to grow. Some of this carbon goes into the ground. In fact, soil stores three times more carbon than the atmosphere and twice the amount of trees and forests. However, soil can also lose these carbon stores when degraded. The loss of carbon from poor soils contributes to the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and accelerates climate change.
- MEDICINE: In a single teaspoon of soil, there are more individual micro-organisms than the world’s entire human population. This biologically and chemically-rich substance has produced some of the antibiotic compounds that we use today to fight disease. “We literally make medicine from our soil” – Professor Emmet
- ENVIRONMENT: The bio-diverse ‘soil-web’ of underground life found in healthy soil creates an open structure. This allows rainwater to seep into the ground and be stored as moisture to help plants and crops grow, even in times of drought. It also prevents flooding as healthy soil is less easily washed away than poor quality soil. At a time when global warming makes extreme and uncertain rainfall more frequent in the UK and worldwide, this is another example of where soil can be an asset to us all.
“Soil is one of the most underrated and little understood wonders on our fragile planet” – a keen observation from Professor Bridget Emmett of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
How Modern Farming is Killing Soil
In the UK, around 70 percent of our soils are managed by farming. Modern agriculture is commonplace throughout the country but has a number of practices that can damage soil health. Ploughing and using of heavy machinery on wet ground can damage the soil and weaken its rich biology and vital structure.
The practice of monocropping (growing a single crop year after year such as wheat or barley) extracts nutrition from the soil and encourages weeds and pests. This creates the demand for artificial fertilisers and pesticides. As well as accounting for around 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions, these artificial additives further destroy the complex nature of our land.
What’s The Answer?
Nature-friendly farming creates bio-diversity above and below the ground. More and more farmers are switching to regenerative farming methods that put soil health at the centre of their business. Sowing seeds without ploughing up the land, growing a rotation of crops to keep the ground in-use all year-round, using naturally produced bio-fertiliser to feed the soil with healthy nutrients and nitrates.
These regenerative farming methods allow farms to reduce or even eliminate their reliance on chemical inputs. They promote a richer diversity of bird and insect life and stronger plants, which take care of pests and plant diseases.
Hertfordshire farmer, John Cherry, took his farm to regenerative farming practices 12 years ago and he now encourages other farmers to do the same. He defines regenerative farming as “making your soil better at the same time as growing decent food at a decent price.” While his output may be slightly lower than farms using heavy machinery and artificial fertilisers, his costs are lower too. Also, his more diverse farm is less vulnerable to issues such as flooding and drought, making his business more resilient. Nurturing the soil on which he’s built his business makes sense to him. “Nature has several hundred million years head-start on us and has got good at producing food without buying in nutrients.”
Soil’s status is changing to more of a superhero role as the UK looks for new ways to meet pressing targets for fighting climate change.
Because soil is seriously underrated, to know more is to care more. From both an essential source of food to a common good that matters to us all, we need to recognise the importance of soil and support its health.
What Can I Do?
A powerful new documentary Kiss the Ground, available on Netflix shows how soil and regenerative farming can help save the planet, and how all of us can get involved in different ways. There is also an online community hub set up by UK Soils to highlight resources, including home and school activities for children and guidance for gardeners, chefs and farmers.
While it isn’t easy to see the precise details of how your food is farmed at the supermarket, you can look for labels such as organic, LEAF, biodynamic and Pasture for Life as these certifications are awarded to schemes centred on the environmental aspects of food. Farmers markets and farm shops may display their own information about sustainability on their stands or websites. You can also talk directly to the producer and find out how they are helping to improve soil health on their farm.
A Word From Envar Composting
Soil health is core to our business too and something we are passionate about promoting and improving. Andy Sibley, Director of Envar Composting comments that “compost can be hugely beneficial to soil, helping to optimise soil health and aid carbon sequestration.”
“Compost provides a slow release of major and micro-nutrients, improves soil structure and rooting potential. It increases moisture retention and soil drainage, and is a good source of organic matter.”
“Peat free compost also provides an environmentally friendly alternative to peat. Extracting peat from peat bogs damages the peat bog habitat and releases the carbon stored in the bog into the atmosphere. Composting provides a safe and sustainable way to process green and food wastes, creating a natural, peat free compost which is applied to soil to optimise soil health.”