About Soil Health
Healthy soil is as important to life as clean air and water, but we’re not taking care of our soils. Already, one quarter of the world’s arable soils are severely degraded, and we lose another 30 football pitches worth of soil every minute.
Soils are essential for all life on land. Often requiring thousands of years to form, soil is a combination of minerals, rock particles, organic matter, air, water and living organisms. It is this combination of matter that sustains life—life that in turn supplies us with the majority of our food, feed, fuel and fibre. Well-managed soils also reduce the impact of drought and flood, and are a carbon reservoir storing more carbon than all the forests in the world.
Most of us recognise topsoil, that dark crumbly looking material which makes up the uppermost layer of soil. This is where you find the highest concentration of organic matter, nutrients and microorganisms. This is the layer that sustains all land life, including you and me.
Without soils, life on land as we know it would not exist.
Soil organic matter is the component of soil that consists largely of plant material and animal residues at various stages of decomposition, along with the bountiful microscopic biodiversity that is largely responsible for the decomposition process, converting organic matter into nutrients for plants to grow. Soil organic matter not only serves as a long-term reservoir of nutrients for life, but also contributes to soil productivity by holding water and air, making them available to plant roots and soil life.
Soil organic matter is one of the most important components of soil, and a key indicator of soil health.
We need to save our soils.
To this end, the Soil Association is committed to increasing the soil organic matter (SOM) in our soils by 20% in the next 20 years. On non-organic farmland in the UK, SOM levels are currently on the decline. Reversing this decline in organic matter and starting to increase it will be a challenge, but we know from experiences in organic farming that it can be done.
To reach our goal, we’ve outlined seven ways to protect and support our soils:
- Recycle plant and animal matter for natural fertilisers
- Improve soil health monitoring nationwide
- Encourage soil organisms
- Protect soils from damage with continuous vegetation cover
- Plant and retain trees on vulnerable and marginal land
- Reduce soil compaction from livestock and machinery
- Introduce crop rotations designed to improve soil health
Organic farming helps soils thrive
Organic farms already utilise these seven ways that we can save our soils, and research has shown that these practices benefit soil health. So every UK farm that switches to organic will help us reach our goal. But even non-organic farms can significantly improve the health of their soils by taking up these practices, benefiting people and planet alike.
Maize: Subsidised Soil Destruction
One of the biggest culprits behind soil degradation in the UK is maize.
- Maize is the most rapidly growing crop in the UK—up from 8,000 hectares in England in 1973 to 183,000 hectares in 2014.
- Most maize is used as winter animal feed (silage), especially for dairy cattle; but increasingly maize is being grown as an energy crop for anaerobic digesters (AD), a popular new technology for the production of energy.
- AD plants using maize receive Feed-in Tariff and the Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies. Maize growers are also subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). So maize grown for AD receives a double subsidy from public money.
- Maize crops leave soil exposed during much of the growing season. Maize is usually harvested late in the year when soils are often wet, so with heavy rain, water runs off the surface of compacted and damaged fields, polluting waterways with pesticides and nutrients, and causing floods.
So in addition to our goal of increasing soil organic matter over the next two decades, the Soil Association also is calling on the Government to stop subsidies for maize grown for AD and introduce strict measures for management of maize crops to encourage farmers who grow maize for silage to minimise soil losses.