The quality of our soil determines how successful we are at tackling food security and climate change - yet we treat it like dirt. A new animated film from the Soil Association celebrates one of our most important natural resources on World Soils Day.
"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 1000 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 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.
This chemical blanket - equivalent to an area larger than Wales - is spread over the fields that we rely on to provide us with food. 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.
What we do know is that one of the best ways we can improve our soils is by farming organically. Organic farming 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.
Organic farms store more soil carbon than non-organic farms, 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.
It's time for a celebration of soil
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.
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.