As many of you already know, 2015 has been named the International Year of Soils by the UN, so never has there been a better time to get soil into the conversation. The question of ‘how do we make soil sexy?’ is something that has been troubling soil scientists, farmers and NGOs for a number of years, and quite rightly so – we should be worried about the state of our soil.

Issues surrounding soil are yet to enter the mainstream of public concern. But if current rates of land degradation continue, quite soon they will have to. There are many challenges involved in driving the change towards agricultural practices that preserve and build soil fertility, but the gathering at the Global Soil Week (GSW) conference in Berlin last week certainly made me more hopeful. The event brought together young and old, experts and newcomers, all with the overarching aim to raise awareness about the vital need to look after our soils better and to get the issue onto the political agenda.

No one can deny the fundamental importance of soil and its fertility – in fact, you could say that, along with water, it is one of the most important natural resources on earth. It stores approximately 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon globally – three times as much as the atmosphere. And one tenth of the carbon in the atmosphere has come from soil degradation. Our first and most urgent goal must be to stop any more soil carbon being released, helping to warm the planet.

In addition to being the source of 95% of our food, soil is also a key part of global nutrient cycles, and an important sink for atmospheric methane. It’s also essential for maintaining biodiversity above ground, while providing an underground home for 25% of all life on the planet.

However, a study conducted in Germany revealed that 1–1.5 billion people globally are living on degraded land. It has been estimated that every year we are losing 24 billion tonnes of topsoil as a result of unsustainable agriculture. In so many areas of the world, vast expanses of land have been converted to arable cropping, creating soils deprived of natural fertility and generally dependent on the continued application of external inputs in the form of artificial fertilisers. In many semi-arid areas of the world this is leading to desertification at a rate of 12 million hectares each year (or 23 hectares per minute). This is not only threatening local food security and economies, but also seriously contributing to global climate change.

This rapid growth of intensive agriculture over the past 50 years is hardly surprising given the current reality of farming and food production, where low economic returns have forced farmers to upscale and specialise in order to produce the highest possible yields at the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately, more often than not, this has resulted in short-term financial gains prevailing over long-term investment in soil fertility.

Without doubt, every single participant at GSW recognised that we have a problem here, and that we cannot afford to go on with ‘business as usual’, over-using and exhausting our soils. However, what became obvious to me was the lack of tangible solutions and educational resources available to advise producers on how to farm in a way that reverses this decline in soil fertility and leads, in the long term, to greater productivity, resilience and economic gains.

With the aim of trying to address this problem, the Sustainable Food Trust, in partnership with Healthy Soils Australia and the Namibia Agricultural Union, ran a session  at the conference exploring the potential for grasslands to play a significant role in rebuilding the fertility of many of the world’s degraded soils. More than 5 billion hectares (40%) of global agricultural land is grassland, storing approximately 35% of terrestrial carbon. Past degradation of grassland by poor management and conversion to cropland has helped to create 5 billion hectares of man-made desert around the globe. However, with careful and sustainable management to increase soil organic matter, there is the potential for this to be reversed. The point was made that one extra gramme of  humus can hold 20 grammes of water, which illustrates that building soil fertility not only increases the potential of soils to store carbon, but can also significantly develop its resilience to drought and flooding, which we can only expect to see more of in the future.

It is this level of practical conversation and exchange between scientists, NGOs, institutions and policy makers that is going to be vital in helping to visualise and then bring about change in soil management. However, the pressures on farmers across the globe, whether they are scratching a subsistence existence on a little land or farming thousands of hectares, are so large that without public understanding of the pressing issues with soil and a sense of urgency to protect this disappearing natural resource, it is difficult to see how things will get better. Taking this message to the general public is another ball game altogether and will require some seriously creative thinking.

The ‘One Hectare’ exhibition that was launched during GSW was just that. The project, as the name suggests, is a one-hectare site in the heart of Berlin intended to raise public awareness and understanding of global soil issues. At the launch, people rapidly laid rubber matting over the site, to symbolise the terrifying speed at which land is being sealed under concrete and tarmac each day – yet another problem soil faces. In Germany, this is happening at an average rate of 70 hectares per day! This figure may seem staggering, but it is, in fact, down from 130 hectares per day a few years ago. The German government has pledged to reduce this further to 30 hectares in the coming years. The project exemplifies exactly the kind of powerful messages that are key to developing public understanding of the issues, driving political engagement and momentum.

For me, GSW served to enhance the fact that safeguarding our soils will be one of, if not the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced. This needs to be recognised, along with climate change, as critically important to the survival of our planet. Why are we finding it so difficult to visualise the change that is needed? I think the answer to this is clear – throughout our history we have evolved, for basic survival, to grow our own food, eventually developing the large-scale industrial agriculture that dominates food production today. But now we must take a step back – something that feels completely unnatural to us, especially in the Western world. If we are going to have any chance of maintaining and rebuilding our global soils, we need to incorporate the best of traditional practices and start farming in harmony with nature rather than working against it. Despite the huge challenges of changing the current food system, we need to create a progressive form of food production, which puts the health of soils at its centre and is sustainable into the future.

Photograph: IASS

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