The ground beneath our feet
Tim Young - 05 December 2012
Most parents probably have phrases they find themselves using far too often. “Say thank you”, “clean your teeth”, “don’t pick your nose”, and so on. This year the phrase my children have become heartily sick of hearing at our allotment is “don’t tread on the soil”, usually exclaimed urgently as one them wanders across one of our vegetable beds. Again.
Personally, we’re still very much at base camp when it comes to our organic growing expertise. But this year, with our patch remaining resolutely water logged more or less since April, it’s been easy to see why all our books warn so vociferously about compacting the soil; those wellies, small though they are, tend to sink in and leave a seemingly permanent record.
It’s fair to say that soil, in all its glory, gets fairly short-shrift generally in our culture. Boys seem to have an innate talent for accessorising their trousers with mud stains whenever they pass within 50 feet of a dirt-patch, while those of us who are less popular have always got the option of going to eat worms. But a wider appreciation of the biology of soil? Or the need – and the techniques – to keep it in optimum balance for fertility and resilience in our growing systems? The difference between a healthy soil and a denuded mud patch? And understanding of the ability of our soils to store carbon, protect against floods and droughts, and mitigate against the effects of climate change? Not so much – myself included. For many of us, soil is just the muddy stuff that things grow in.
And yet, if there’s one thing that both working at the Soil Association (yeah, that word again), and trying to care for my allotment has taught me, it’s the utmost importance to our collective futures of keeping soil healthy. A healthy soil supplies the fertility to feed our crops, the microscopic life to underpin our entire eco-system’s food chain, and the resilience to help deal with nature’s extremes: our soils need to be cherished and protected – both individually in our own gardens, and collectively on our farms.
What’s more, there is some urgency to this need, as currently our soils are being metaphorically trodden on by forces greater than my children's wellies. For example, some types of non-organic agriculture triggers soil erosion at rates 100 times greater than the speed at which nature can form soil in the first place. In the UK specifically, the last major study of our soils in 2009 suggested that our ability to produce food could be put in jeopardy by the erosion of approximately 2 million tonnes of topsoil every year.
Some farmers and scientists already understand this – today is World Soil Day, and to celebrate the Soil Association is partnering with the Dutch Save Our Soils campaign to raise consumer awareness about the importance of soil for our health, food, security and climate, encouraging consumers to become urban farmers and buy organic food. We also recently held a sold out Soil Symposium for farmers, while tomorrow we’re contributing to a Westminster meeting of scientists and policy makers to try and develop some Parliamentary momentum on the issue.
Unless more of us start to understand more about the importance of this precious natural resource, and start to care about what is done to our soils by our current food production systems, we could be heading for disaster. So this World Soil Day, spare a thought for the ground beneath your feet, and how choices we make about what we eat, and how it is produced, could ensure it’s not all going to crumble away into dust.
Tim is editor of the Soil Association's Living Earth magazine, and has written on food, health and consumer issues for the last ten years. When not at work Tim is normally being run ragged by his two young sons. In 2009 Tim started trying to grow vegetables, and last year he took on an allotment. Two years later he is still trying to grow vegetables, and is very hopeful that one day soon he will have some success.