Food and water – the answer lies in the soil

It’s well-past the time to take healthy soils seriously as the fundamental requirement for our future food provisioning. That was the key message to come out of Parliament’s committee room 16 yesterday (Dec 6th, 2012). The room was packed out for an all day meeting on soils by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology co-sponsored by the Food Ethics Council, which has produced recent publications on soils, and the British Society for Soil Science.

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Soils are not, as a recent book made clear, just dirt. Nor are they some physical matrix for plants to stand up in but complex ecosystems vital to all of us, said Prof Nic Lampkin of the Organic Research Centre. They hold a vast amount of carbon as well as two thirds of the world’s fresh water.

The importance of understanding soils as complex biological systems as well as chemical and physical, was reiterated by other speakers. Yet nearly all the attention and business interest goes on the chemical (fertilisers and pesticides) and physical (machinery), not the biological, said Ian Robertson an independent agronomist. Since there was not much money in that side of understanding soils and helping farmers improve soil health compared to selling inputs, he felt it was neglected.

Mark Kibblewhite, Prof of Applied Soil Science at Cranfield University, argued that a massive data revolution was on the way as sensing technology and GPS develops and becomes more mainstream. New technologies offer the potential to understand soils much better in detail at the field scale. However, the top down approach to soils mapping and work needed to be turned upside down with farmers leading in developing soil information, he said. Farmers in the audience pleaded for clear and practical information and for academics and officials both to listen to the understanding farmers have of their soils and farms and support farmer-based efforts to share their knowledge.

Louise Heathwaite, professor in Land and Water Science at Lancaster University pointed out that soils had a central role in water, food and energy security, a point reiterated by her colleague Prof Phil Haygarth who argued that soils issues stretch across multiple scales from the molecular to global. Moreover, soils form very slowly and are effectively a finite resource we have to protect not consume. Yet there was a massive lack of awareness about the importance of soils, the range of ecosystem services they provide, and the problems of soil sealing through development and urban expansion – of particular relevance after the recent floods.

There are also many barriers and skills gaps, with a very fragmented policy and funding landscape, and mono-disciplinary thinking, said Louise. While the new tools may deliver more data, cross-disciplinarity was needed in order to make the most of it.

There was a broad consensus about the need for more skilled people – and careers for them – able to interpret the growing knowledge and support farming practice towards what Nic Lampkin dubbed eco-functioning intensification. Others called for DEFRA, which recently set up a natural capital committee,  to say what was meant by references to soil health in their work on natural capital, and see that CAP reform facilitated this.

Unfortunately, despite requests to participate, as the chair noted there was no one from DEFRA at the meeting to contribute to the discussion. In the last session both the panel and audience contributed to issues to be taken forward by the APPG through Parliamentary questions and follow-up with the Minister. All the presentations from the APPG will be on their web site as well as a fuller report on the meeting than in this blogpost.

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About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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