Traidcraft's Robin Roth, Digs a Little Deeper into Healthy Soil...
As the festive frenzy of Christmas and New Year draws to a close, our thoughts may begin to turn to spring; the season of hope, and perhaps, things we might pledge to do more/less of as part of our New Year's resolutions. In this piece, Robin Roth, Traidcraft's Mission and Transparency Lead, discusses all things healthy, organic soil, including its importance and fragility, and the small changes you can make, which will make a big difference.
If you have been following my recent articles on how climate change is challenging us in ways we can’t even begin to think about, you will probably be tired of all the terms being bandied about: organic, soil health, NPK farming, bio-diversity, multi-cropping. Easy to say but fiendishly difficult to comprehend sometimes.
Here, I am going to dig a little deeper (if you will forgive the pun) into healthy soil. I recently told the story of how Vandana Shiva, my fair trade heroine, explained to me that the single most important thing for a farmer’s well-being was healthy soil. I also explained that at the time I simply didn’t understand what she was talking about – and that I am only just beginning to get it.
We all take soil for granted and we assume it will be there forever. In fact, some scientists are warning us that soil is being eroded so fast that we may only have between 60 and 100 harvests left before it’s gone completely.
Soil begins life as rock. Slowly crushed and ground by tectonic movements over millions of years, this grit has been further “rinsed” by glacial movements until it resembles nothing so much as a fine mineral-rich dust. These minerals incidentally include those chemicals which are absolutely critical for growing food, including potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen. The transformation into soil, however, required a further development: organic material to bind it together. Millenia of decaying organisms; algae, plants, insects, animals and trees, have been broken down by the innumerable bacteria that feed on and transform carbon-rich plant life into humus. The result is extremely rich, nutrient-dense soil that can support agriculture, but it is also forms a surprisingly fragile and thin layer on the earth’s surface. Without it we starve.
That we were able to develop an agrarian economy at all is thanks to these natural organic processes that go back many millions of years. And we have managed to deplete this extraordinary, slowly accumulated inheritance in a matter of decades. Our problem now is that we cannot “grow” soil quickly. There are no factories that produce soil and once it is gone, it is gone. And soil does, literally, disappear. Heavy rainfall that cannot be absorbed by the earth, wind erosion and land slips can all cause soil to be washed, blown or carried away, ultimately to the sea.
After years of poor management, de-forestation and over exploitation, many farmers are now farming on dead or depleted soil. The only way to grow anything in this kind of soil is to spray it with the necessary nutrients; especially Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous (hence the name “NPK farming” after the elementary symbols used to represent them.) Each harvest requires a little bit more fertiliser to achieve the same results and, of course, the sale of fertiliser is big business. Agrochemical companies make a lot of money from soil degradation. The further application of pesticides, (chemical compounds designed to exterminate organic lifeforms,) naturally affects the bacteria in the soil. It kills it.
I often find that to explain what fair trade really achieves, you first have to understand what damage unfair trade – otherwise known as “free” trade – can cause. It is the same with organic farming. It is impossible to understand how absolutely critical natural farming is, until you appreciate the wanton carnage set loose by conventional – or as some people prefer to call it – “poison” farming.
So how does organic farming improve soil health?
Firstly, organic farming requires significant and abundant composting. Composting feeds the soil by adding back nutrients that have been lost in plant growth. An essential element in composting is animal waste, particularly cows, so small scale animal husbandry absolutely fits with the sustainable model. Composting at home may be just a small statement of intent, but your garden will love you.
Secondly, organic farming promotes multi-cropping. This means that more than one crop is grown on any patch of land since different plants provide different nutrients when they are composted back down.
Thirdly, organic farming requires tree cover, ideally up to a third of the total land being farmed. Trees are the best guarantor that soil is not washed away by rain, and that water is retained in the soil for growing plants. An unprotected, treeless environment can lose up to 10,000 tonnes of soil per square kilometre, each year. By comparison, a forest will absorb excessive rainfall and the loss of soil can be reduced to nothing more than half a tonne for the same area. Add to this the fact that forests actually create soil (yes, all those leaves turn into soil) at the rate of about 100 tonnes per year, and you begin to see that trees are not just carbon collectors, but also soil growers. Tress remain the great providers and the unsung heroes of and for our eco-systems.
If ever you see pictures of stripped fields and mighty combine harvesters ploughing up, spraying over and cutting down some genetically modified crop, you should almost be able to see the skull and crossbones flashing in your mind’s eye. This is not sustainable farming – this is extractive destruction. Compare that with a small holding working according to organic principles, nurturing its soil and providing natural, sustainable produce as a consequence.
At Traidcraft, we have been supporting small farmer co-operatives for over 40 years. We invest in the people who invest in the land that feeds us. Of course, it’s more expensive, but we see it as being part of the solution to our climate crisis. You can do your bit by buying local organic food wherever possible, or fair trade, organic food from abroad. And you can go out and buy a composting bin today…
For more information on how to home compost, from our friends at the Royal Horticultural Society, see our how to guide, here.