Soils: no longer just muck, and much more than magic
Lynda Brown - 16 October 2013
My head is still reeling from the fascinating but also alarming statistics I heard on BBC radio 4’s Shared Planet yesterday, presented by the Soil Association’s president, Monty Don. The programmed covered how soil is the biological engine of the Earth, yet is the world’s least understood eco-system; how there are 50,000 different types of soil, home to 1/3 world’s living organisms (including a 100 billion types of bacteria and 10,000 tiny organisms); how its fuel is organic matter, and how its health and biology is regulated by its structure; how earth worms are the vital player, moving as much soil as tractors; how 95% of our food depends on soil, yet we are losing it 50 times faster than it can be replaced; how soil acts as the primary filter for our drinking water (and how water companies have to treat it to rid it of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers); how soil is the largest reservoir of carbon on earth, out performing rain forests; how bacteria secrete compounds that provide the ‘glue’ to make strong soil structure, trash bacteria and you trash the structure; and so on.
So, more than half a century after the Soil Association was founded (it was not called the Soil Association for nothing) it seems the world is finally waking up to the importance of our soils (actually, it’s far more than that: put crudely, no soils, no future for mankind on Earth). Founded on the belief the health of the soil, people and planet are intimately linked and cannot be divorced from each other, it was visionary then and has never been more relevant than now. For we are no longer talking muck and magic, or batty ideas from backward looking farmers who refused to think that intensive chemical agriculture was the way forward, we are talking survival.
To be proved right is small comfort when you consider the mess we’re in. 70 years of intensive agriculture and general trashing of our planet has taken its toll – some scientists are already talking of ‘peak’ soils’. But there’s no point playing the blame game either. As long as we insist on cheap food at any cost, fuelled by a global food supply, and trashing the planet, we are digging our own coffins; the only question is how long it will take.
However, it doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. As the programme also points out, like all living systems, soils are remarkably resilient, or at least have the inborn capacity to be so. Treat them right, nurture them, and feed them right and they will, over time, recover. Which is where organic farming comes in. Every principle of organic farming (and gardening) systems comes back to the importance of striving to protect and nurture the soil that feeds us; and that the best way to do that is, as far as possible, to mimic natural systems (which, incidentally, is what the programme also suggests).
The Soil Association's founding fathers, of course, went one step further. They believed that “nutrition derived from a balanced living soil is the greatest contribution to health (wholeness)”. This is why they promoted organic husbandry “as a viable alternative to modern intensive methods". Any organic gardener or farmer will immediately know this to be true; and is something I personally believe in utterly. And yes, it may not be a perfect system, and yes, of course, any farming system can – and must – be improved, but I challenge anyone to find one that has the potential to solve today’s agricultural dilemmas more sustainably.
Besides which I love the stuff to bits; it’s truly magical, and every time I cradle a handful in my hand I marvel at its life giving properties. Anyone up for a Love our Soils campaign before it’s too late?
Lynda is an award-winning food writer and broadcaster, and keen advocate for organic living. She is author of several food books over the last twenty years including Planet Organic: Organic Living, The Cook's Garden, and The Modern Cook's Handbook, as well as writing The Preserving Book that was published in 2010 in association with the Soil Association. Lynda is an expert on food and nutrition and a seasoned broadcaster, regularly speaking on food and farming both on the radio and television.