Why soil matters

Environment Secretary Michael Gove speaking at the launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (Photo: Louis Smith/Yeo Valley/SSA)
Environment Secretary Michael Gove speaking at the launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (Photo: Louis Smith/Yeo Valley/SSA)

Soil is often overlooked and undervalued. Yet it is a vital resource teeming with life that underpins the ecosystems we humans and many other species depend on for survival.

It’s also at serious risk. It’s estimated we only have 100 harvests left before we can no longer produce any food because the land has become so unproductive.

Sustainable Soils Alliance

This week saw the launch in Parliament of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, a new collaboration of individuals and organisations with an interest in the crisis facing our soils and the determination to reverse the decline of soil health within a generation.

We were there as one of the Alliance’s supporting founder members. Our chair Baroness Young spoke alongside Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, and we were pleased  to hear him reiterate Government’s pledge to plant 11 million trees over the next five years, although we believe that this should be the foundation for a more concerted drive to accelerate woodland creation, not an end in itself.

Planting 11 million trees

Mr Gove told the audience that countries can withstand horrific things such as coup d’états, war, and conflicts but that no country can withstand the loss of its soil and its fertility.

He said:

“There is an emergency. The signal is at red, the alarm bell is ringing and we’ve heard it in Defra. And that’s why we are taking steps. We know we’ve got to go further to ensure that most important of natural resources has the capacity to renew itself and provide us with food.

“Our determination to make sure 11 million more trees are planted over the next five years is part of that. Trees do so much more than help the balance of our soils. They are a carbon sink. They are a different type of habitat that provides for biodiversity in areas it has been eroded.

"We see the planting of 11 million trees as part of that programme of making sure our soils can be refreshed, replenished and renewed.”

A distinguished panel of speakers helped launch the Sustainable Soils Alliance. (L-R) SSA Director Ellen Fay; Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust; Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association; Rebecca Pow MP; SSA founder Neville Fay; Greenpeace CEO John Sauven; Woodland Trust Chair Baroness Young; Co-founder of the Eden Project Sir Tim Smit; Professor Chris Collins, Co-ordinator of the Soil Security Programme; and SSA Director Kevin Kennedy (Photo: Louis Smith/Yeo Valley/SSA)
A distinguished panel of speakers helped launch the Sustainable Soils Alliance. (L-R) SSA Director Ellen Fay; Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust; Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association; Rebecca Pow MP; SSA founder Neville Fay; Greenpeace CEO John Sauven; Woodland Trust Chair Baroness Young; Co-founder of the Eden Project Sir Tim Smit; Professor Chris Collins, Co-ordinator of the Soil Security Programme; and SSA Director Kevin Kennedy (Photo: Louis Smith/Yeo Valley/SSA)
“If we didn’t have trees, we’d have to invent them” – Baroness Young speaking at the launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (Photo: Louis Smith/Yeo Valley/SSA)
“If we didn’t have trees, we’d have to invent them” – Baroness Young speaking at the launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (Photo: Louis Smith/Yeo Valley/SSA)

The benefits of trees

Baroness Young told guests that if trees didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them because of the range of benefits they bring and that ancient woodland soils are, themselves, “a miracle”

She said:

"Soil is the basic substance that nurtures our biodiversity web. Yet we lose 2.2 million tonnes of important topsoil each year from the UK’s land. Estimates put the cost to the economy at £45 million annually and some hillside agricultural areas can lose more than 100 tonnes per hectare per year. As agricultural land covers around 70 per cent of the UK this is a major concern that we, as a country, must address.

“The Woodland Trust is working with farmers and landowners to reverse this worrying statistic, incorporating trees as a way to combat erosion, to provide protection from wind and rain, dramatically improve stability and stop soil being literally washed away in front of farmers’ eyes.

“We need to see more trees on our farm landscape and an agricultural regime supporting multi use sustainable agriculture.”

The panel

Baroness Young was joined on the speaking panel by Eden Project founder Sir Tim Smit, Soil Association Chief Executive Helen Browning, Greenpeace CEO John Sauven, Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust and Professor Chris Collins, CEO of the Soil Security Programme. The event was hosted by Rebecca Pow MP who is also Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ancient Woodland And Veteran Trees.

Soil recovery plan

SSA founder Neville Fay said he saw the Parliamentary reception as an opportunity to address how to frame a national soil recovery plan and bring soils to the heart of government policy as a fundamental pillar of life and natural processes upon which the entire food and farming system depends.

“If there is a political will to address the reversal of soil degradation, this marks the beginning of a vision for soil policy,” he said.

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