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How do you care for your soil?

By Sara Venn

In 2015 The United Nations announced that World Soil Day would be held on 5th December and this year the theme is ‘Be the solution to soil pollution’.  We’d like to hear about how your care for your soil, so we can share your learning.

World Soil Day focuses on the many ways our soils worldwide become polluted, often as a result of industrial farming methods, such as pesticide use, plastic pollution and overuse of antibiotics in industrial livestock production.  In 2014 academics at the University of Sheffield undertook a large survey of urban soils and traditional farmlands and discovered that whilst our farmlands were suffering a depletion of fertility through years of farming that relied on artificial chemicals and fertilisers that fed crops rather than soil, our urban soils were healthy and filled with life. Our parks, gardens and allotments, looked after by generations of people concerned with soil health, who continued in a traditional way to feed their soils with manures and composts that had not just kept fertility high but also ensured the flora and fauna in the soils were healthy, allowing the soil to feed the crop rather than having to add chemical fertilisers. Proof if you like that the traditional methods, that have now progressed and we know as agro-ecology, need to be the way forward.

Soil is the bedrock of life. That six or so inches of fertility that we rely on to feed us, clothe us and which we take for granted as we develop housing estates and transport systems on it, holds within it the most important things in life. Whilst it changes in the way it looks and behaves, from rich clays to the less fertile sandy soils of chalkland, soil supports life. Whether a farmer with thousands of acres or a community plot of far smaller dimensions, the soil is singularly the most important thing to anyone working around growing and producing food.

We know that Incredible Edible groups across the UK and worldwide are passionate about supporting the soils on which they grow but how can we support the wider community to ensure the soil which grows all our food is healthy and teaming with life?

The UN suggests focusing on the things that put those soils at risk and trying to mitigate against them. Of course, when it comes to heavy metal pollution and salination, as community activists there is little we can do other than demand better practice and good policy through campaigning, but there are many things we can do to support our soils to be healthy.

Firstly, of course, agro-chemicals that leave pesticide residue in the soils must be stopped. The UN suggests that we need these chemicals to a degree to feed the ever growing population.  We know, however, that there are thousands of small producers world wide, peasant farmers who feed 70% of the world, who use no chemicals and instead grow crops that are appropriate, and tend them well in small production that is completely free from pesticide use of any type. Returning to the small farming model, and using the new technologies of compost teas and other feeding models are proving that soil can be kept rich and well at the same time as feeding local populations.

Using agro-ecological methods that support the entire eco-system will also mean that soil will remain fertile and rich, as nature creates its own eco-system where nothing overruns crops because the natural biodiversity of the field means everything is in harmony.  This is not something that can be achieved over night but which, over a managed time period, can support soil and nature back into a healthy and biodiverse eco-system.

We can also support soils by ensuring any meat and dairy we eat is looked after organically, with antibiotic use only allowed if animals are actually unwell. This ensures the bacteria needed by the soil is not killed off by over use and also that bacterial resistance doesn’t build up in the soil and its flora and fauna, or in us as well eat meat over reliant on antibiotic use.

In cities we can mitigate against traffic pollution by creating plant barriers to stop issues of soil pollution. Good use of ornamental plants and hedging, whilst rarely seen in cities, can really support road run off and keep any crops in urban areas safe. Using these methods make the space appear greener as well as supporting healthy soils, and a park or allotment site surrounded by trees and hedging rather than metal railings is always a sight to behold throughout the seasons.

In the same way, ensuring rain gardens are in place in cities and towns will support soil fertility to stay in the soil rather than rush down the drains in heavy rainfall. Slowing the flow of any flooding and holding water in especially designed spaces and allowing it to leave in a way that will stop flooding is a vital part of mitigating against climate change as well as ensuring healthy soils.  We can also look at good use of green roof technologies, holding water on roofs which again gently release that water into the drainage system, alleviating the risk of flood in the ever-changing face of our climate.

And of course, as community activists we can ensure that our soils we use for growing are treated kindly. By feeding our soils with organic matter, using no dig techniques and supporting agro-ecological methods in our communities, we are all playing our part in keeping our soils healthy!

If you’d like to tell us more about how you treat your soils and your techniques for keeping your soil healthy, get in touch so we can share your learning. And if you’d like to know more about World Soil Day take a look at www.fao.org/world-soil-day/en/