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Soil degradation, mass insect decline and ultra-processed food

This IS a crisis

I’m on the train back to the West Country, after a speaking slot at the Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) energised ‘This is a Crisis’ conference.

Today (12th February 2019) saw the publication of their hard-hitting new report announcing the ‘age of environmental breakdown’, with huge implications for global economic and social stability.

Sadly, I didn’t have to look far for my material for this conference. The BBC News coverage of the report was all about global soil loss and degradation, surely the most neglected aspect of the environmental crisis. 52% of soils worldwide are degraded, 25% severely degraded. Here in the UK, 2.2 million tonnes of soil is eroded every year and nearly 85% of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia has already been lost. We urgently need to stop mining our soils and start rebuilding organic matter for carbon storage, fertility and resilience.

carrots in soil

This week, we also heard that we have a global insect population collapse on our hands. According to a ground-breaking global scientific review published in the journal Biological Conservation, the total mass of insects is falling by 2.5% every year. No wonder the UK’s farmland birds are in unending decline. The main driver? Not climate change, for once, say the scientists, but intensive agriculture and pesticide use.

Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the study authors conclude. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least”.

A red flag for policy makers?

As we discussed at today’s conference, there is always a risk that talk of ‘crisis’ induces paralysis instead of action. However, this alarming evidence of insect collapse may be the red flag that was needed to force policy-makers to think ‘biodiversity’ at the same time as ‘climate change’ when they set out their stall on future agriculture policy.

For the sake of our soils, our insects and our farmland birds, we need nothing less than a system transition to agro-ecological farming systems, like organic and agroforestry. Agro-ecology is about farming with nature, using ecological services first and chemicals last. Agro-ecology is about diversity and crop rotations, which build fertility and disrupt pest cycles, in place of soil-degrading, pest-breeding monocultures. And agro-ecology is about a good life for all farm animals, fed wherever possible on ‘leftovers’ – grass and food waste inedible to humans - in place of imported soya and grain.

Agroforestry

How can we achieve system change? 

Next week, the Soil Association will launch the English translation of an important study from French think tank IDDRI, Ten Years to Agroecology in Europe, which models how we can achieve system change to organic farming systems across Europe in ten years.

The key to achieving this transition to sustainable farming is to join up the dots with the urgently needed transition to healthy diets. It is not enough to ask: “How can we feed the world?” and use this as a license to pursue further intensification to maximise yields of wheat, maize and soya, much of which goes on to feed intensive livestock and bulk out processed food.

This is why, though it was far from perfect, the Soil Association welcomed the report of the Eat-Lancet Commission. Finally, the right question was being asked: How can we feed the world a healthy diet within planetary boundaries? Their game-changing conclusion, behind all the headlines about 1.5 eggs a week, was that we urgently need “strategies to refocus agriculture from producing high volumes of crops to producing diverse, nutrient-rich crops.”

70% of our UK diet is processed food, 51% ultra-processed - compared to 14% in France. 80% of processed food is made from just 4 crops: soy, maize, wheat and meat. The system change needed in our diets and in our farming is all about diversity. Business-as-usual intensification of monocultures is not the way we’re going to feed the world a healthy diet within planetary boundaries.

Now is the time for action

The UK has an opportunity in the promised National Food Strategy to show genuine strategic leadership on food security, which means joining up the dots between the system change needed to achieve genuinely sustainable farming and land use and the system change needed to achieve genuinely healthy diets, as well as halving needless food waste.

In the meantime, the Soil Association is tabling two amendments to the Agriculture Bill, which need support from all our MPs: one to put ‘soil health and carbon sequestration’ top of the list of ‘public goods’ from farming that are deserving of public money, and another to ensure UK policy will give farmers the support they need to make whole farm changes towards agro-ecological systems like organic.

Without urgent action our soils and wildlife will continue to decline and the effects will be catastrophic.

This is a crisis, and nothing less will do.

We urgently need your support to make it happen. Donate today to support our vital work to stop pesticides wiping out our wildlife and together we can transform the way we eat, farm and care for the natural world.

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