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The dirt on soil

All life depends on it and all food needs it – so why aren’t we doing more to protect our soil?
The dirt on soil

This article appears in the spring issue of Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 07 April 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online.

Great food needs great soil – but it’s very easy to forget about what’s in the ground beneath our feet and why it’s so important to protect it.

One tablespoon of soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth; billions of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms combine with minerals, water, air and organic matter to create a living system that supports plants and, in turn, all life.

Healthy soil can store as much as 3,750 tonnes of water per hectare, reducing the risk of flooding, and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that 89% of all agricultural emissions could be mitigated if we improved the health of our soil.

Good soil management also increases disease resistance in livestock and ultimately drives profits for farmers – yet soil and its impact on the health of our animals has, over recent decades, been one of the most neglected links in UK agriculture.


Over the last 50 years agriculture has become increasingly dependent on chemical fertilisers, with applications today around 10 times higher than in the 1950s. Farmers often think the chemical fertiliser NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) provides all the nutrition a plant requires, but it also has a detrimental effect on the long-term health of the land: research suggests there are fewer than 100 harvests left in many of the world’s soils.

Organic agriculture is perhaps the most effective and e fficient way to protect our soil. In order to meet organic milk standards, dairy cows must be outside for as much of the year as pasture conditions allow, and given a forage-based diet – usually in the form of silage – if they need to be housed.

The cows’ diet must also be kept free from pesticides and GMOs, meaning that the grass – and therefore the soil it grows from – must be kept in peak health using only natural methods.


A new innovation that hit Asda’s shelves in February is ‘free range’ milk, from cows that have spent a minimum of 180 days outside (compared with the 215 days per year that organic cows typically graze outdoors).

While free range milk may not meet the same production standards as organic milk, it gives consumers an extra choice and gets more cows outdoors, so many would argue it can only be a good thing.

‘Free range milk presents a great half-way house for shoppers who want milk from a known system with standards in place, but who choose not – or are unable – to buy organic’, explains Tim Mead, chairman of Yeo Valley. ‘Lower input farming, with less artificial fertiliser and a greater reliance on grass than grain, has to be of benefit to our soils’, he adds, ‘so it’s great to see more farmers moving towards this approach.’


For over 20 years Yeo Valley has partnered with OMSCo (Organic Milk Suppliers’ Cooperative), and farms organically on its own land in Somerset. ‘We place a huge importance on the welfare of our animals and fully support all moves to produce food for our country from healthy animals that have been well treated and reared predominantly on grass’, says Tim. ‘After all, a forage-based diet is one of the key attributes of organic certification.’

Another requirement is that steps are taken to protect and enhance wildlife, meaning certified organic farmland hosts 50% more wildlife than the average farm.All this helps the soil to flourish naturally, and healthy soil is the only starting point for healthy food and a healthy planet. So whatever food you choose, just remember: if you love great food, remember to love our soils, too. It’s where all our food comes from.

Click here to plan your visit to Yeo Valley’s organic garden or award-winning canteen.

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