Now more than ever, especially with the publishing of the IPCC report last week, we need to reduce our carbon emissions to avert the worst impacts from climate change. This will not be easy. And we will need to think hard about how we can positively impact all areas of the natural world.
Beneath our feet is one of the most exploited, and most pivotal parts of this fight. It is very easy to take soil for granted, and assume it will always be there. Productive, nutritious and beneficial soil is both an underrated, and increasingly endangered property of the natural world. It could also serve as a vital tool in reducing our carbon emissions and helping to preserve our natural ecosystems.
Think we’re overexaggerating our claims? Read on to discover how soils may truly be a surprising saviour in dire need of saving!
Getting our hands dirty – the science of soil
First, let’s go back to the basics…the soil that is most useful, and in most danger, is topsoil. This is the first layer of dirt, built up over centuries, that is nutrient-rich and full of organic matter. Formed by the weathering of rocks and the build up of decaying plants and animals, making high quality top soil is no quick process – it can take over 1,000 years to build up just one inch of new soil!!!
The most obvious benefit is to agriculture, where soil is used as a productive growing medium for most of our food. Good soil also ensures grazing is nutritious for our domestic animals (i.e. thick lush grass = yumyum). In fact, over 95% of our current food is derived from soil!
But the beautiful brown stuff has many other important uses within the natural world. Soil is also crucial for anchoring roots for plants as they grow, filtering and regulating rainwater (thereby preventing flooding). It is also an essential component of construction and manufacturing materials, the cup you’re drinking your morning/afternoon coffee out of probably contains clay – that clay is sourced from the ground beneath your feet! Its role in all of these processes also means that soil is a vital regulator of our climate, e.g. plant growth and carbon dioxide intake. *Fun fact alert* – soil actually holds way more carbon than the atmosphere and in plants and animals – over 3x as much as our atmosphere!
…and soils are in danger
And frighteningly so. According to the FAO, over 33% of soils worldwide are already degraded, and a shocking 90% are estimated to be degraded by 2050 if current rates continue. At current rates, we are losing quality top soil 10 to 100 times faster than it is being replaced! The Economic of Land Degradation (ELD) actually estimates that over $40bn of the world economy is lost every year due to land degradation such as soil erosion. Grim stats indeed – but what are the causes of this dirty truth?
Degradation is mainly caused by poor management processes, ultimately taking more out of the soil than it can naturally replenish. Erosion, compaction, nutrient imbalance, pollution, acidification, water logging, loss of soil biodiversity and increasing salinity are all having a negative effect on our soil quality, which is ultimately impacting all of us in a very bad way. Intensive agriculture that strips the soil of nutrients and adds in harmful chemical fertilisers is an obvious culprit, killing important microbes and fungi that are vital for healthy soil structure. Further activities such as tilling of the soil (churning it up and destroying its natural structure) and deforestation for farming the land also degrade the soil, leaving it vulnerable to being washed away. It has been estimated that soil erosion and degradation can lead to a 50% reduction in agricultural yields – pretty scary stuff!
And the impact is massive. Degraded soil is not only degraded in nutrients. It also has a reduced capacity to absorb water and carbon. A degraded soil is less able to let excess rainfall filter through it, and is less stable to anchor plant life that grows within it. This can lead to massive landslides, flooding, as well as increased risk of desertification when there is limited rainfall! Degraded soil will also have reduced ability to store carbon – estimated to sequester 50-70% less carbon than their healthy counterparts.
So action is needed for our soil?
You said it! With such slow recovery rates, it is vital we act now to protect this golden dirt! Good news is there are already actions being taken around the world to improve and protect our top soil, and ensure it is of a high quality to benefit us and natural ecosystems. Good practices that can benefit soil growth today and in the future include:
- Sustainable agricultural practices – using organic fertilisers, practising no-tilling (aka not ploughing up the soil every year), rotating crops and avoiding monocultures can all positively impact soil health.
- Reducing deforestation/increasing reforestation – this helps to stabilise the soil structure and aids filtration and helps soil to hold onto moisture. It can therefore limit flooding and desertification significantly.
- Eating more fruit and veg – to be very honest, eating a more plant-based diet and less meat that is sourced from grass-fed, sustainably farmed animals can really help to reduce the need for intensive farming across the world
- Other innovative ideas – trials involving enhancing important fungi within the soil, developing hydroponic farming systems that don’t use soil, and even simple solutions like strip grazing are showing initial signs of dramatically improving soil health!
However, we’re not there quite yet…these practices need to be scaled if we have any hope of counteracting the soil erosion and degradation currently being experienced. Sharing ideas, knowledge and scaling action is vital – for the good of the ground, the earth, and (ultimately) us!
- Read more here here here and here – (ITS SUPER INTERESTING)
- Support farms that practice sustainable farming and regenerative farming practices that preserve and enhance soil health.
- Support projects abroad – support projects that are involved in reforestation and educating farmers around the world on sustainable agricultural practices
- Eat less meat – and make sure it’s sustainably sourced – the classic environmentalist action here, but eating a more plant-based diet will reduce the amount of food required to be grown. Eating a smaller amount of sustainably farmed meat will help to limit continued exploitation and degradation of vital soil around the world (as well as all the other benefits)!
Read more about hydroponics – an alternative way to farm food without soil?!