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Save Our Soil - The Neglected Earth Beneath Our Feet

May 29, 2020 2:52 PM
By Veronica-Mae Soar

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When I was growing up there was a catchphrase often bandied about (with a suitable rustic accent) - "The answer lies in the soil." There have always been some who understood the importance of soil; but it has now become an imperative, as we are told that if we continue as we are then we have around 60 years worth of harvests left to us.

We all know that to survive and thrive humans need good clean air and potable water - and there have been continuous, although not always successful, efforts in some areas to try to ensure we have them. But until quite recently, soil did not get much of a look in. Certainly the Soil Association has been beavering away since 1946 to get over the message of how important healthy soil is - in fact not just important, but vital. Government has been telling us that all we need to be healthy is a varied diet, which will provide all the nutrients we need. It does not seem to recognise that food cannot contain nutrients if those nutrients are not in the soil to start with.

Wartime necessity first encouraged the use of artificial fertiliser; and at the time this was seen as a wonderful aid to growing lots of food. After the war those companies who benefited from producing agricultural chemicals did not stop, they began to expand. Farmers were told that the only way to get good harvests was to use these new pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. And for quite a while they did. No one seemingly wondered what all this was doing to the soil or the natural world around the farm. It was Rachel Carson in 1962 with her book 'Silent Spring' who pointed out that chemicals were destroying beneficial insects and birds. This created a furore at the time but gradually things died down and for most people it was back to business as before.

Fast forward to today and thankfully there is a growing number of farmers and growers who have realised that unless we treat the soil with the respect it deserves it will no longer feed us. While some still cover vast areas with mono crops requiring vast chemical inputs, others are not only looking to treat the soil well but to regenerate it and restore its functions. This is beyond organic. As well as ceasing the use of toxic inputs, these farmers are using cover crops, not tilling the soil, planting trees and strips of wildflowers, rotating crops, mixing crops together in alternating strips and using grazing animals as part of a holistic 'loop.'

The benefits are tangible. Bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects thrive, so too do a variety of birds which do their bit to deal with pests. And crucially, the carbon content of the soil grows. Whereas ploughing had been releasing carbon for far too long, regenerative farming soaks it up and locks it away. This healthy soil retains moisture far better and reduces run off; and thanks to the work of dung beetles, the soil is enriched. As cattle are moved from area to area, the grass they have munched re-grows with stronger and deeper roots which lock carbon into the soil and increase the nutrients - making then available to whatever is grown there.

Whereas most consumers have heard of organic food - even if they do not buy it - the latest trend is to go further and label food as coming from regenerative farming. What is not to like?

NOTES

The amount of carbon released from soil due to intensive farming tripled from 1945 to 1986- a significant contribution to global warming

Organic farming has been shown to increase soil carbon levels by between 15 and 28%

Farm chemicals, mostly from fossil fuels, account for 59% of total agricultural energy.