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Are our soils in crisis?

Published on April 28, 2022

Why is healthy soil so important?

We rarely pay much attention to it, but the soil beneath our feet is the foundation of all Earth’s ecosystems. Healthy soil is full of life – just one kilogram can contain more organisms than there are humans on the planet – and it is a precious resource that can take thousands of years to be created naturally. Our living soils provide us with what scientists describe as a range of important ‘ecosystem services’. These include supplying our food and fibre through agriculture; storing carbon and regulating our climate; controlling the flow and quality of water; and supporting much of the planet’s biodiversity.

“A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the Earth’s hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness.” (Fuller, 1975)

Soils are highly variable, even within small geographical areas (there are over 700 different soil types in the UK alone!) and this affects what habitats they support and ultimately, what they can be used for. For example, while lowland mineral soils under arable and grassland management are important for food production, deep peats in upland areas under semi-natural habitats are important for carbon storage and climate regulation.

Soils contain about three times the amount of carbon that is held in the atmosphere and are the largest terrestrial carbon store. They therefore play an important role in regulating the balance of greenhouse gases (GHG). Disturbing soils through drainage and cultivation causes the release of carbon dioxide and it has been estimated that cultivated (or arable) soils have lost up to 60% of their carbon compared to their ‘natural state’. This not only has consequences for the climate, but also has impacts on wider soil functioning. Protecting and improving soil health is therefore essential for sustainable food production and food security, water quality and flooding, as well as helping to mitigate climate change.

Why is soil health declining in some areas?

In 2020, the UN released a report noting that soil degradation and loss of biodiversity is a major concern for the future sustainability of the planet. In the UK, the main soil degradation processes of concern are compaction, erosion and loss of soil organic matter (or carbon), which has been estimated to cost in the region of £1.5 billion a year in England and Wales. The majority of soil ecosystem services are largely driven by biological processes underpinned by soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition. Organic matter provides a food source and habitat for the soil biological community, drives the cycling of nutrients within soils and is a central component of soil aggregation and the maintenance of structure and water relations. SOM is therefore fundamental to the maintenance of soil fertility and function and is a key indicator of soil quality.

There are many factors that can cause declining soil health, including

  • land use change (e.g., grassland cultivation, peatland drainage and deforestation), resulting in a loss of SOM
  • damage to soil structure from suboptimal agricultural field operations and livestock grazing, particularly when soils are wet – this is particularly problematic with late-harvested crops in the UK that often cause severe soil compaction and erosion
  • contamination and nutrient enrichment from poor nutrient and waste management
  • urbanisation and soil sealing reducing the ability of soils to regulate water flows and reduce flooding risk
  • extreme weather events, such as high winds and rainfall, which can lead to significant erosion, compaction and flooding.

 

As soils become degraded, they are more vulnerable to erosion and are less able to provide the ecosystem services we all rely upon.

So, how can we better protect our soils?

As the importance of protecting our soils becomes increasingly apparent, there are policies and proposals at national and international levels to conduct further research and to implement measures to protect soil health. Agreeing indicators and monitoring criteria is important and great progress is being made in these areas to help bring soil health into the mainstream of the sustainable development agenda. Our research at ADAS on soil and nutrient management has contributed to both government policy and more practical on-farm advice, showing how soils can be managed sustainably by recycling organic materials to land, using cover crops and grass leys in the rotation and managing cultivations to minimise compaction. We have also been working in partnership with the agricultural industry to develop and test indicators of soil health to help farmers assess their soils and target soil management interventions more appropriately.

Moreover, ADAS developed the MANURE NUTRIENT EVALUATION ROUTINE (MANNER-NPK) nutrient management decision support tool to help farmers improve management of their organic manures. The MANNER-NPK tool was first released in 2000 and has been updated multiple times since then. In 2019, the tool was shortlisted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as an example of good practice in the use of information technology in agriculture.

The UK government has pledged to ensure soils are sustainably managed by 2030, and measures in England such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will pay farmers to protect and restore soil health through SOM testing and management. Soil stewardship will be incentivised under the “arable and horticultural soils standard” and the “improved grassland soils standard”. By managing soil organic matter through crop rotations, cover crops, organic material inputs and tillage, it is possible to minimise soil degradation. Innovation in soil monitoring technologies will be important to help simplify soil monitoring, reporting and verification moving forwards.

In conclusion, protection and enhancement of the quality of our soils is vital to a sustainable future – soil is as important to life on Earth as air and water.

ADAS is sponsoring the World Congress of Soil Science in Glasgow this year, which will bring together over 3000 soil scientists from around the globe. Organised by the British Society of Soil Science, the congress theme “Soil Science – crossing boundaries, changing society” focuses on the link between soil and society and aims to share knowledge and information about the role and importance of soils in addressing many of the challenges facing the world today: climate change, food security and water supply and quality.

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ARTICLE AUTHOR

Anne Bhogal

Soil Scientist, ADAS

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Dr Anne Bhogal is a Soil Scientist at ADAS, the UK’s largest independent provider of agricultural and environmental research and consultancy and policy advice. The ADAS soils and nutrients team leads the research and development of soil and nutrient management policy, translating the results from field-based research and desk-based studies into practical information and advice for government, regulators and land-based industries.

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