Soil – the substance of transformation was the subject of this year’s Global Soil Week (GSW) in Berlin. As already detailed on the Sustainable Food Trust website, the event was attended by more than 600 delegates from 80 countries. This gives a clear indication of how this most overlooked, but most important of all food production resources, is just now beginning to receive the attention it deserves from many national governments and international agencies.

With more than half (52%) of the world’s soils now classified as moderately or severely degraded, there is vastly more to do to stabilise the current situation. For every adult and child on the planet, 3-4 tonnes of topsoil is washed or blown away. To reverse the trend, we need to rebuild soil structure, organic mater and overall soil health. These tasks need to become areas of top priority for all governments, since unless we achieve this, the security of food supply to the global population will increasingly come under threat.

Even here, in the temperate climate enjoyed by the UK, soil erosion has been estimated by Defra to cost £42 million annually. Soil degradation is also occurring with most arable land having lost 30-40% of its organic matter, but we need to remember the extent to which we in the UK rely on imported food to realise the scale to which soil degradation in other countries could eventually impact on us.

Vulnerable landscapes vulnerable societies

Vulnerable landscapes vulnerable societies – the role of grass and grazing in building resilience to climate change was the title of a session at GSW organised and run by the Sustainable Food Trust in conjunction with Healthy Soils Australia, the Namibian Agricultural Union and Anita Idel, a German veterinarian who has been working to improve soil fertility in India and Argentina through livestock grazing.

SFT Director Patrick Holden gave the first presentation on Farming based on soil biology –why and how to enable a policy transition. He explained why after many decades of soil fertility being considered only in terms of chemistry, it is now essential to recognise that it is actually the biological life of the soil which is all important to its long term health and resilience. Patrick also introduced the audience to the concept of ‘soil as the stomach of the plant’, an issue he has already set out on the SFT website.

Patrick was followed by SFT Policy Director Richard Young who spoke about the potential of mixed and all-grass farming to reverse soil degradation in Europe, presenting scientific evidence to support the SFT’s position that better management of existing grasslands and the re-introduction of grass and legume leys into arable crop rotations are the most reliable and in some situations the only way to produce human edible food crops while also building soil carbon levels.

You can listen to a recording of Patrick’s and Richard’s presentations below and view Richard’s slides underneath.

Other presentations looked at the need to manage dry grasslands, upon which almost 2 billion people depend for food, in more sustainable ways, to prevent the continuing loss of organic matter which occurs where such grasslands are overgrazed.

Soil – the substance of transformation refers at the most fundamental level to the way in which life on this planet is sustained. It is only through the myriad actions and interactions within the soil’s biological life that inert mineral rocks and decaying organic material are transformed into the plant growth which feeds both us and all terrestrial animals, including humans. But, if we can get policy makers to finally recognise just how vital soil health and resilience is to our future and to their future, then that must drive a transformation of another kind – the transformation of food production systems globally from their current, predominantly exploitative, short term and destructive nature to systems that are restorative, healthy and benign. We can but lobby and hope.

Further information about GSW 2015 is available here, including a link to a new animation produced by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany.

Photograph: USDA

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