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Common as dirt – is our most precious bank about to go bust?

Professor Vala Ragnarsdottir

Professor Vala Ragnarsdottir

20 April 2010

Matt Fortnam in the Department of Earth Sciences draws comparisons between the global financial crash and the impending global soil crisis

Fertile soil can be regarded as capital. Not the capital familiar to economists and stockbrokers, but something much more important. If soil is capital, then the trees, crops and wildlife that come from this soil are the profits which society depends upon for food and wealth – for its very existence. To yield higher profits, we need to protect and build our capital.

In the past 30 years, industrial agriculture has increased demand on the Earth’s soil to such an extent that its capacity for renewal is being exceeded by one hundred times or more. In other words, we are consuming capital as if it were income. And, as any banker will tell you, confusing capital with income is a recipe for bankruptcy. Since the end of World War II, the industrialisation of agriculture, or the ‘Green Revolution’, has generously plied the soils with readily available chemical fertilisers to replace the nutrients withdrawn by crops. Farms have seen the arrival of gigantic machinery to plough, spread and harvest ever-larger fields at higher and higher speeds. Insects are no longer a problem, defeated as they are by huge quantities of pesticides. Thanks to these technological advances, farmers have continued to supply enough food to feed the world’s growing population.

The cost of a basket of food has also fallen by half over the past 30 years, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. These advances, however, come at a price. Although not as publicly visible as the recent losses in the banking sector, the loss of productive soil is staggering. Soil degradation is harming the productivity of 40% of the world’s agricultural land, and up to 70% in some regions, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Furthermore, the demand placed on soil capital will become greater as the global population grows towards 10 billion by 2050. The ability of soils with diminishing fertility to feed the world will be increasingly called into question.

The demand placed on soil will become greater as the global population grows towards 10 billion by 2050

Despite the achievements of the ‘Green Revolution’, advances in food production are masking the true debt that has accrued due to loss of the soil’s capital. Just as consumers in the US and Britain were able to live beyond their means by borrowing money to buy houses and fund their lifestyles, we have been able to live beyond the means of the soil by borrowing fertility with synthetic nutrients to increase the productivity of fields.

Echoing the trouble faced by banks in managing their debts, soils are failing to cope with the shortfalls. If farmers continue to pursue current industrial agricultural practices, then soil, the life-sustaining bank, could go bust. And no amount of quantitative easing – or in this case chemical inputs and mechanisation – will revive it. To create capital, academics and policymakers must listen to and learn from farmers taking a different approach to producing food. The boom years for food production can no longer be taken for granted. Agriculture must adapt or else lose its most precious bank.

Local, traditional knowledge of how to support healthy soils offers alternatives to industrial agriculture. Organic, biodynamic and permaculture farming practices build the natural fertility of soil by using this knowledge and our understanding of how soils function naturally. Some farmers in Kenya, for example, have returned to the techniques of their ancestors with impressive results. Although these practices are spreading globally and there is growing evidence that they could feed the world, they often fall under the radar of politicians.

Local, traditional knowledge of how to support healthy soils offers alternatives to industrial agriculture

Over the past two years, SoilCritZone, a European Commission (EC) research project co-ordinated by the University of Bristol, brought together a network of over one hundred European, American, Chinese and African soil scientists to debate how to build on the work of their predecessors. “The focus for us in the foreseeable future is understanding how to restore soil and working out how to protect the vital functions that the soil provides society,” says Ragnarsdottir, who co-ordinated the project but is now a Visiting Fellow from the University of Iceland.

The project’s report, released in September 2009, recommends that future research should integrate knowledge from all relevant disciplines to understand the ‘critical zone’ – a region extending from the very tops of trees, down through the soil, to the groundwater below. This is necessary because there is a need to better understand natural soil systems throughout their lifecycle, since they provide valuable lessons on how to create sustainable agricultural soil systems.

To understand the life cycle of soils, scientists need to model all the processes within and influencing the critical zone. Building such models is currently difficult since data from the various soil disciplines are recorded at different sites with different techniques. To remedy this, the report proposes the establishment of a network of soil observatories across Europe.

“We need data to be recorded at a number of soil observatories by scientists from all relevant disciplines,” explains Ragnarsdottir. “By understanding how all the aspects of the critical zone interact, including the rocks, the animals and the weathering processes, we will beginto understand how to prevent the loss of the vital services provided by the soil in the future.”

The models would use data from the observatories to inform policymakers and land resource managers of areas at particular risk of soil degradation in Europe. The EC will consider the recommendations of the project as part of its ‘roadmap’ for research in Framework Programme 7, which bundles together the European Union’s (EU) research initiatives. The development of the proposed EU Soils Framework Directive, which aims to protect soils across Europe, will also draw upon the advice given by the SoilCritZone network.

The time has come for the different soil disciplines to work towards a common endeavour to restore soils to their former glory. All of their expertise will be required to understand the critical zone as a complete system. The proposed soil observatories may not make the knowledge of soils complete, but they will certainly reinforce the foundations for the successors of today’s soil scientists to build on.

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