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Healthy soil for healthy life

James Cashmore, managing director at the Soil Association, shares how you can help protect our soils
Soil with a garden trowel

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 10 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Ahead of this year’s Climate Change Conference – COP27 – in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Soil Association is calling for soil health to be prioritised as a solution to the climate and nature crises.

Faced with a growing energy crisis, extreme global weather events and record greenhouse gas emissions, the aim of COP27 is to deliver renewed support for the international treaty on climate change adopted in Paris in 2015.

We will hear how we need to be steadfast in our resolve to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, build resilience and adapt to the impacts of climate change, while committing to a level of financial support that would be sufficient to allow developing countries to take climate action.

It really is time that we get on and deliver on these commitments.

As part of this it is vital that we recognise the role of good soil health – for the planet and our own health – and how it underpins all our efforts to tackle climate change.

Life begins with soil

Soil contains three times more carbon than the atmosphere but, depending on how it is managed, it can either be the villain or the superhero: healthy soil stores more carbon while degraded soil leaks carbon back out.

Healthy soil acts as a sponge; it soaks up water, which can help prevent floods and mitigate the effects of droughts on crops. It supports biodiverse habitats and is home to billions of microorganisms, as well as being the ultimate provider of vital human commodities such as food and textiles. We neglect it at our peril.

All life begins and ends in soil. It is a living system – a combination of minerals, organic matter, air, water and organisms – but today one third of the world’s arable soil or land growing crops is degraded. Every minute we lose an area of soil the size of 30 football pitches – despite the fact that we need it for 95% of our food.

Working with nature

We simply cannot meet our net zero targets if we ignore soil health. In the UK our soils are eroded and depleted and soil biodiversity is damaged, meaning nature is suffering, too. Conventional and intensive farming practices, including the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, have caused untold damage.

The good news is that, by changing the way we farm and eat, we can help protect our soils for generations to come – and they can play a significant role in slowing climate change by capturing carbon and addressing the biodiversity crisis at one and the same time.

Five ways to protect soil at home

1 Grow your own – growing different vegetables and plants in your own garden, allotment or even a window box will help recycle nutrients back into the soil – and it’s an environmentally friendly way to get your food.

2 Compost – organic matter in soil comes from plants and animals and is an essential ingredient for healthy soil. Organic farmers use 65% more manure compost than conventional farms, resulting in higher soil organic matter. You can do the same at home by composting waste vegetables and organic matter like leaves.

3 Grow soil-saving plants – plant flowers and plants that are beneficial to soil health. Plants that pull nitrogen from the air help to increase fertility in the soil while those with deep roots promote healthy soil structure and draw up nutrients for other plants to use.

4 Support soil-friendly agroecological farming – the way we eat and farm makes a big difference for our soils. Choosing to support agroecological farming, like organic, in your local area is a big help for building soil fertility naturally. Find a local box scheme to get started!

5 Speak out for soil – raising awareness about soil degradation is vital, so share this information with your friends and family and encourage them to ‘save their soil’, too. We must look after our soil and there is a growing and supportive movement trying to do just that. Together we can influence politicians to acknowledge and prioritise soil health.

A shift to agroecological farming practices – where we work with, not against, nature – can restore the balance and regenerate our soils.

We are encouraging farmers to make the change and governments to support the transition to nature-friendly farming. You can help too by choosing organic and supporting your local, regenerative farmers.

Look for environmental credentials on all your products, including things like the clothes you buy.

Why we need healthy soil

We know that when we look after the soil, nature flourishes. On organic farms, which prioritise soil health, there is on average 44% more soil carbon and 50% more birds, insects and other wildlife than on conventional farms.

Considering that just one teaspoon of soil can hold more organisms than there are people on the whole planet, we think that our soils are well worth protecting! We can all play a part in helping to restore the health of our soil.

Taking action at home (see box of tips) is a great way to learn how soils work, protect your own garden and build biodiversity – welcoming nature back.

‘Bug the new PM’ to save nature: add your name to the petition here

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