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Protecting and regenerating soil:
the fragile skin of the earth

December 2018

Earlier this year I saw Sir Tim Smit, of Eden Project fame, close a session on soils for a room full of policy people. He followed 17 other impressive speakers, a challenge for anyone. He began roughly as follows: “I’ll start by saying exactly what I say when I go into schools to talk about soils. I ask them how long do you think you would survive if your skin were removed from your body?” The answer is around half an hour, because we breathe through our skin. It’s a graphic image with a Roald Dahl-like appeal to kids, but it made the point beautifully: soil is the earth’s living, breathing skin and is as critical to it for supporting life. Yet it is much thinner and more fragile than our own –10,000 times thinner, proportionally. And we too casually abuse, waste and lose it.

If the earth depends on it then so, of course, do we. Soil is the fundamental substance underpinning nature as our own critical life support system, giving foundation to and sustaining the plants we eat to survive, tempering the climate, filtering and storing water. It is the base for the web of life, higher organisms that it feeds and then recycles when they die. It’s a complex ecosystem that lives, breathes, digests and exhales. Yet, we know so little about it. Of some 11 million known soil organisms, fewer than 2% have been classified, let alone described and understood. In our ignorance it looks inert, so we treat it like dirt.

This may be all too obvious or perhaps not: if we cherished soils already, why would we need World Soils Day on 5th December? And too many grim statistics are there to remind us of the problems soils face, even in the UK: a third of our arable soils are degraded; only 1% of peatlands are undamaged; soil degradation costs society over £1.2 billion a year; our best Fen peat soils may fail to produce food within a generation; 18.5 million tonnes of carbon a year are lost from UK peat; we landfill 20 million tonnes of soil annually and seal and sterilise thousands of hectares with impervious surfaces, with an area the size of Greater London expected to be urbanised each decade now until 2050. Soil continues to be seriously eroded, compacted, losing organic matter and its biological life, as well as capped effectively forever when sealed. We have yet to find and fully deploy the activities that would sustain the soils that sustain us.

Our expected departure from the Common Agricultural Policy has provided some real momentum for change. The new policy promises to bring together soil health with productive and resilient farming, as well as enhancing the environment. To achieve this in a market where margins are tight and price pressure fierce, the finances will need to make sense to those who manage the land. Put simply, it needs to become uneconomic to manage land in ways that damage soils, and to become economically rational to manage land in ways that sustain them. Optimistically, peat and soil are listed as prime candidates to be paid for and protected, perhaps restored under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.

Yet, despite this leadership from Defra, on soils there is a need to go further and faster. The IPCC Special Report in November made it compellingly clear that we have until 2030 to act decisively as a species to bring down greenhouse gas emissions and stabilise temperature rises at 1.5 °C – or risk severe consequences.

The Royal Society in September, and Climate Change Committee more recently, both made clear that land use, particularly restoration of soils in peatlands and wetlands can make important contributions to cutting emissions and storing carbon. These methods to lock carbon away in land are not technically complex; they are ready to go now, and it is imperative we act.

Despite this urgency, policy on soils remains vague. An England Peat Strategy is awaited in 2019, but the overall objective – ‘we want to sustainably manage all soils by 2030’ – is unclear and there is no defined action plan for soils, not least to end their degradation by 2030, as our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals requires. Add to this the uncertainty on funding for the ELM system and that it won’t be fully implemented until 2025, seven years of the 12 we have to act. Lastly, the 25 Year Environment Plan is strong on soil health, but soil health is not a major policy goal like clean water or air. The Plan has nought to say about soil biology and building organic matter and carbon in soils other than peat, despite the carbon stored in grasslands and the potential, need and benefit of storing more there as well as croplands.

In short, soils need to be at front and centre of the Government’s environmental policies, to halt their degradation and to support their protection and regeneration. Political will and resources are critical to achieving this for soils, for storing carbon, for cleaning and storing water, and for producing food. The political context is very dynamic and much can change, but so is nature and nature won’t wait on us.

Graeme Willis, Senior Rural Policy Campaigner, Campaign to Protect Rural England.

CPRE published Back to the land: rethinking our approach to soil on 2nd December 2018.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.