Soil is where our food comes from - so why don't we look after it as well as organic farmers? Photo: Soil Association.
It's time to celebrate and protect the soils that feed us!
4th December 2015
Almost all our food is grown in soil, writes Peter Melchett. Yet we are treating it like dirt: spraying it with toxic chemicals, depleting vital nutrients, and releasing its carbon to add to climate change. With World Soils Day coming up tomorrow, let's change our ways - and renew our commitment to organic food and farming.
Organic farms not only have lower greenhouse gas emissions, they also have healthier soils, with research finding that organic farms have significantly more organic matter than non-organic.
"The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible." Those are the words of Lady Eve Balfour, co-founder of the Soil Association and also its first president.
Written nearly 70 years ago, they still stand true in 2015, which also happens to be the International Year of Soils.
With good reason: soil is one of our most important natural resources. Soil takes up to 1,000 years to form just one centimeter. Yet we're destroying it at a rapid pace: 10 million hectares of cropland are abandoned every year as a result of soil erosion and poor soil management.
Intensive farming practices are partly to blame. While it is true these practices increase yields, more rarely discussed is the fact that they do so at the expense of the yields and food quality of future generations.
After decades of ill-treatment, intensively farmed soils simply become exhausted of nutrients - an effect already observed in some UK arable soils. With 95-99% of our food coming from the soil, this has huge implications for a growing world population.
Soil is as important as air and water to life on earth
We need to take care of our soils for our nutrition and food security, not to mention the planet's wildlife. The way we treat our soils is directly related to our ability to tackle the most important threats facing humanity - not just food security, but also climate change and environmental crises like flooding and drought.
As the UK has faced a rainy autumn, healthy soils have silently helped us cope with extreme weather. Healthy soils - soils that aren't compacted and that have lots of soil organic matter - act like a sponge, soaking up water when it rains and staying moist for longer in droughts. This means when big rainfalls occur, healthy soils help reduce the chance of flash floods.
Healthy soil, however, is about more than just mechanics. Since the dawn of the chemical revolution in farming 70 years ago, farmers have been spraying toxic chemicals on their soils. At the time, pesticides seemed a boon to boost output from the UK's post-war food system, yet we now know that agricultural chemicals come at a painful price to the natural world.
Every minute, we lose one breeding pair of farmland birds. Some of our best loved birds, from skylarks to tree sparrows, corn buntings to yellowhammers, have declined by 90% or more over the last 70 years.
Glyphosate: a poisoned blanket on the UK landscape
The impact of agricultural chemicals on life in the soil is less clear due to a scarcity of research. Worryingly, glyphosate, the main ingredient in the world's most widely used weedkiller, was determined a 'probable carcinogen' to humans by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) earlier this year.
Yet a huge amount of glyphosate is used in the UK - latest figures show nearly two million kilograms of glyphosate was sprayed on 2.2 million hectares of land in 2014. And this chemical blanket - equivalent to an area larger than Wales - is spread over the fields that we rely on to provide us with food.
Outrageously, this includes not just weed control on bare fields, but fields with mature standing crops - among them wheat, barley, peas, oats and oilseed rape - as soon as a week before harvest. This is to kill off the plants and give them time to dry out, and so make the job of harvesting quicker and easier. But it also appears designed to leave a residue of weedkiller in the food we eat.
But what is it doing to soil life? While scientists are only just learning that glyphosate is not safe for our own health, there is limited research into glyphosate's effects on life in and around soil. Preliminary findings, however, show that it has a negative impact on earthworms and bees - and this may be the tip of the iceberg.
Ye the mighty agrochemical and biotech industries are fighting back hard so they can keep their glyphosate business going. Their latest victory is to persuade the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to contradict the IARC's view on glyposate's cancer causing qualities - based on unpublished industry studies that have never passed peer review, and that are kept secret from the scientific community.
The answer is organic food and organic farming
So for the time being there's only one sure way to avoid glyphosate residues in our food, and to make sure that the farmers we buy from are not using it on their land - nor any other chemical weedkiller. Yes, it's to buy organic.
Farming organically is also one of the best ways we can improve our soils. It avoids the use of chemicals, and maximizes soil health by promoting practices like crop rotation. This gives fields time to recover and helps increase soil organic matter, strengthening the soil's ability to cope with flooding and drought and resist erosion.
Organic farms not only have lower greenhouse gas emissions, they have been shown to have healthier soils, with research finding that organic farms have on average significantly more organic matter than non-organic farms. So organic farming helps combat climate change.
Scientific research also shows that organic farms store more soil carbon than non-organic ones, sequestering around 450kg more atmospheric carbon per hectare than non-organic farms. Because soil holds more carbon than our atmosphere and plants combined, healthy soil is vital to combating climate change. Simply put, the healthier the soil, the more carbon it tends to hold.
This Saturday marks World Soils Day, and to celebrate we have partnered with award-winning film studio Aardman, creators of Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit, to help us tell our story - passionately and simply in a one minute animation, From Potato to Planet. (See video embed, above.)
The film follows a family's daily life to see how the decisions they - and we - make can influence our wider environment, in particular the soil. With simple, clear, language, and beautiful visuals, the film empowers people to see how there are little steps and choices that everyone can take to help make things better.
Watch the video and if you like it, share it with your friends and family.
Sign our petition to tell bread manufacturers, including Hovis, Warburtons and Allied Bakery, that we don't want glyphosate in our bread.
Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK's main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops. He is a member of the BBC's Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government's Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education's School Lunches Review Panel. He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 2013, was on the Board of the EU's £12m ‘Quality Low Input Food' research project, and is a Board member for two EU research projects on low input crops and livestock,
As a former member of the House of Lords, he was a Labour Government Minister 1974-79, at the Departments of Environment, Industry, and Northern Ireland (covering education and health). He has been President or Chair of several conservation ngos, including the Ramblers and Wildlife Link, and was Director of Greenpeace UK (1985-2000), and chaired Greenpeace Japan (1995-2001). Greenpeace launched their global campaign against GM crops in 1997, and Peter was one of 28 volunteers arrested for removing GM maize in 1999; all the volunteers were found not guilty in the subsequent court case.
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