Let’s get dirty: 3 reasons why soil health matters

Eating & Drinking
Long read

After working on farms for 55 years Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farms, is ready to get down and dirty to talk about soil health.

Soil? So what? You might think. But it's time to focus on what goes on underground and rethink the respect soil is given. 

Georgina Wilson-Powell 22 January 2019

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If you love your food, knowing how that food is grown - where and by who and using what - is the next port of call. 

Much like how we now question ingredients for their provenance, whether they're single estate, Fairtrade or organic, learning more about how the fields and the land are looked after is the next step in more eco-aware living.

99% of our food comes from the soil

It’s obvious isn’t it when you think about it? Unless you eat a solely fish diet every day you’re reliant on food that’s grown in the ground or fed from plants. But with soil health collapsing thanks to farming intensively with abandon for decades, the UN warned back in 2014 that the world doesn’t have many healthy harvests left, unless action is taken.

Last year, the UK government put forward to first ever soil health targets to reverse soil loss and falling soil fertility but getting people to care about something as fundamental as dirt seems like more of a macro than micro-challenge.

It’s one Guy Singh-Watson, the former owner of Riverford is taking on. At the end of last year he put out a ‘rant’ about how pesticides and fertilizers don’t just add chemicals to our food, they upset the delicate balance and cyclical nature of soil regeneration. And in simple terms – less healthy soil means less and less food in the future.

“There are ways we can cut back on land use. We can feed ourselves on a lot less animal products on a lot less land, in the tropics growing species together in a more permaculture kind of collaboration rather than monocrops, really works and it’s not inconceivable to get technology to produce food come integrated systems like vertical farms but we need choices and we need to look at the soil first,” he says.

Riverford Soil Health 1

Guy Singh-Watson has been involved in farming for over 55 years

It’s the obvious next step in thinking about where you food has come from.

It’s not enough to know which country or how many air miles but how was that food grown? How is the land supported? Just as we now question who made our clothes because we want those people to be treated fairly, 2019 is the year we start to ask that our land is treated fairly too.

“I feel completely confident that food grown in healthy soil is healthier. It’s better balanced nutritionally, with fewer toxins. If you’re growing your own food that’s the reason you want to get to grips with the soil near you. I’ve met farmers who won’t eat the produce that’s grown on their own farms.

“A cabbage is not a cabbage irrespective of how it’s grown. There are different qualities, sizes, textures, tastes and inevitable nutritional values. Generally the closer we are to nature and the shorter the supply chain, the healthier our food is,” he explains.

Guy's Rants takes on the issue of soil health this year

Riverford

Healthy soil acts as a carbon sink, slowing climate change

“I have been farming for 30 years and previously with my father for another 25 years as well - my future and the planet’s future does depend on the soil health. Healthy soil means we can grow food and support wildlife and have clean water and most importantly have an influence on climate change,” says Singh-Watson.

While the damning reports around climate change roll on, one thing is for certain, all of our industries need to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions in as many different ways as they can manage. But it’s worth considering where stores carbon in the first place. 

One massive carbon sink is under your feet. Plants drink in CO2 and trap it in the soil when they decompose or by feeding soil microbes with root exudates. Healthy soil will hold onto to more of it, effectively taking it out of circulation.

Riverford Soil Health
“Soil can vary in a single field or a garden – a good farmer knows that – and adapts”

In 2017 a research team from Washington State University confirmed that soil holds up to three times as much carbon as there is in our atmosphere. Half of that is held in the first foot under our feet, meaning farming could have a huge role to play in either encouraging more carbon to be locked away by healthy soil, or increasing carbon emissions through short sighted intensive land management.

“As we cultivate more land, especially through deforestation and desertification, we are releasing more carbon,” explains Singh-Watson.

That’s a very simple overview. In reality, the solutions need to be much more nuanced and varied than industrial agriculture often allows.

“All soils are different and need different treatment, you can’t treat them all the same – that’s part of the problem. Soil can vary in a single field or a garden – a good farmer knows that and adapts,” he says.

“Soil should be made of about 30% air. Those gaps allow water to pass through and the bugs that break down organic matter need oxygen to survive. If you rub it between your fingers it should have a musty, mushroom-y smell and it should break easily into the sort of crumbs you would find in a mole hill made in permanent pasture.

“After selling Riverford in June (it’s now an employee-owned company), I’m slowly investing in another farm where we’re experimenting to grow food without monocultures and in a more benign way. It’s not as simple as ‘organic is better’ because we cultivate the soil more than conventional farmers and we produce less food on more land, land which could be used for forests or wildlife – but it’s less intensive and better for biodiversity and our health."

Riverford Soil Health 2

Have you ever thought about how soil needs looking after too?

We’re losing soil

Soil quality is falling. A UN backed study (Global Land Outlook) reported in 2017 that up to a third of the world’s arable land is being lost due to soil degradation – up to 24bn tonnes a year. As well as having an impact on food production it increases political and social tensions over land and resources.

“Industrial agriculture is good at feeding populations  but the food quality can be poor and the environmental costs make it unsustainable. It’s like an extractive industry,” Louise Baker, external relations head of the UN body, told The Guardian.

But it’s what’s in the soil that we’re also losing, says Singh-Watson.

“Biodiversity loss in soil is a big issue. We’re losing the microbial fungi because they don’t like herbicides, phosphates and fertilizers so they stop trapping carbon. The amount of carbon trapped in soil used in most agriculture in the UK has dropped from an average of 5% to 1.5%. Our land use has a huge impact on our climate. If you could reverse that by instigating healthy soil programmes then it would go a long way to reversing climate change. 

If you look after soil then it could go on forever but you need to know what you’re doing, there’s no one quick fix for all soil everywhere.”

"Our land use has a huge impact on our climate. If you could reverse that by instigating healthy soil programmes then it would go a long way to reversing climate change"

Despite humans farming for thousands of years, we’re only just starting to understand the complexity of what goes on under our feet, Singh-Watson explains.

“For instance we’ve discovered that trees often push out their own sugars into the soil around them to support the microbial health of the fungi around it. There is a web of organisms that live in the soil that collaborate and support each other, which is a fascinating analogy of the way we could work.

Think of it like your gut. It’s only in the last few years we’ve realised how central gut health is to our overall health, mental health and emotional wellbeing – it’s the same with soil. If we blitz ourselves – and the soil – with chemicals, then it interrupts this natural connection.”

So what can you do to help?

Whether you’re growing your own fruit and veg or just looking to buy, Guy has some tips:

  • Look into a rotation of two years veg and two years of grass as a resting phase, which helps rebuild the delicate networks of fungi and lets the soil build the aggregates that hold it together back up.
  • Look for a mix of pasture, with a diverse mix of grasses, clovers and herbs that will have different rooting patterns and support different soil microbes rather than just rye grass.
  • Cover with green manure over the winter preferably including a mixture of legumes, grains and grasses and brassicas, which will help boost soil health even after a few months.
  • Shoppers can buy from organic and local farmers who have diverse crops to help support them and start gardening in any capacity at home, to get more of an appreciation of the soil. Gardeners often know much more about soil than large-scale farmers because they get their hands dirty.
  • Help raise awareness of issues like soil health amongst those not tapped into the food and farming communities. It all helps. 

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