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Healthy soil is crucial to our survival says Caroline Aitken

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Visiting teacher Caroline Aitken reveals how soil is one of our most precious planetary resources.

As part of our Edible Ecosystems course this week I am teaching how to preserve forest garden produce, with a special focus on some basic traditional fermentation methods. Sauer kraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha are all becoming more popular in Britain due to their interesting flavours and apparent health benefits. 

Within our growing understanding of these benefits, we have realised that our body is an ecosystem containing hundreds of different micro-organisms which help us to digest nutrients from our food. This is very similar to the way in which microbes in the soil ecosystem make nutrients available to plants.

Like the inner walls of our digestive tract, the roots of plants are covered in a coating of bacteria which feed off the roots and are the basis of the ‘soil food web’, a complex food chain of different organisms in the soil environment.

Leaves are also coated with bacteria which form a healthy protective barrier against disease like an external immune system. In fact, almost everything is coated in bacterial cultures, including our own skin.

Yet while we are beginning to understand the complexity and importance of our intestinal flora, most people are still unaware of the importance of soil life. In recent years scientists such as Dr Elaine Ingham and Dr Christine Jones have made great leaps in our understanding of the soil, but you could say we have only scratched the surface.

Their research has revealed a level of complexity in the soil ecosystem that we could never have imagined.

But we don’t need to know all of the science in order to know how to care for the soil. We just need to understand how to care for it and that in doing so, we are taking care of our own future.

There is a still a common misunderstanding about the importance of organic food production. It is not for nothing that the UK governing body is called ‘The Soil Association’ and yet many consumers are unaware of the reasons for this.

I have overheard many a conversation about whether organic food really does tastes better, and whether farming chemicals really do cause cancer and such like. My primary reason for growing food ‘organically’ (without chemicals and working with nature) is because I want to protect the environment so that I can provide for my family now and we can all do so in the future.

You could say that soil is our most precious resource.

 

In his book The Earth Care Manual, one of the earliest advocates of permaculture, Patrick Whitefield says:

“It is the mother of all plants, and through them the animals, ourselves and civilisation.”

As our understanding of the soil environment has grown, it has become clear that the way we farm (organic or otherwise) causes serious damage and ultimately erosion of our soils. As our soils erode, as does the land’s capacity to support future harvests.

UK Environment secretary Michael Gove warns that the UK currently has only 30 or 40 years of harvests left if our agricultural methods don’t change. This is down to a combination of ploughing and the use of agrichemicals (fertilisers, herbicides, etc).

Ploughing breaks up the natural structure of the soil, much of which is formed by the actions of soil life – microbes, invertebrates and small mammals. It also kills a lot of that soil life, making it more difficult for the soil structure to recover.

Organic matter, manure and compost, also contributes significantly to soil structure and supports soil life, but this is now added in barely significant quantities (if at all) in large scale farming. Interestingly, ploughing causes a loss of organic matter as the carbon-rich substances oxidise on contact with the air creating CO2. So, ploughing not only causes soil erosion and loss of soil carbon, but significantly contributes to atmospheric carbon in the process .

This all looks like a sorry state of affairs, but there are simple solutions to these problems which are tried, tested and practicable. Minimum tillage agriculture and horticulture is an approach long championed by permaculturists which is now beginning to be adopted by both small and large scale producers around the world, albeit slowly!

This means growing food without routinely turning the soil, ie: regular digging and ploughing. Not only does this save a lot of man-power or tractor fuel, but it allows the soil to maintain a stable structure, making it far less vulnerable to erosion. The soil food web is able to thrive, thus supporting the growth of plants without the need for toxic agrichemicals. Good news!

But …humans have been ploughing for thousands of years. The long terms effects of this are evident in many of the areas of ancient civilisation and early agriculture, such as the Mesopotamian Valley and the Loess Plateau in China. These areas, once thriving with dense populations based in regions of high natural fertility are now deserts. And yet, old habits die hard.

Laura Lengnick, award winning soil scientist and author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food systems for a Changing Climate has spent many years working in research and policy-making for soil and agriculture in the USA.

She found that the barriers to adoption of more sustainable farming approaches were political, social or economic, rather than practical. She realised that changing the way we farm is going to be a big cultural shift, and the people making that shift are the farmers themselves.

Laura decided to go and meet the farmers to find ways of helping them with that shift and crucially, allowing them to transition in their own way within their farming communities. It became clear that communication and support between farmers was key to successful change, and that this came down to ‘telling stories’ about who they are, what the land means to them, and what they want for future generations.

Laura is coming to the college in October for a short course entitled Sharing Stories, Cultivating Resilience: Speaking of Food in a Changing Climate.  This course explores the transformative power of story as a catalyst for personal and social transformation in this age of climate change.

In this week-long intensive on transformational story-telling skills, you can learn how to tell stories that spark the kind of social learning needed to put us on the path to a resilient food future. She will also be leading a 5 day course on understanding soil and practical soil care approaches: Cultivating Healthy Soils in Your Garden and On Your Farm.

There is a cultural shift occurring and all of us can be a part of it. The shift will be underpinned by a clear understanding of the importance of soil, and how to care for it so it can continue to support us and future generations.

It will be driven by a vision of a future where life is nurtured, rather than fought back, and humans are an integrated part of the ecosystem, in body and mind. Meanwhile, the human ecosystem continues to support us as it always has done – with the help of hundreds of species of bacteria (many of which are also present in the soil) working hard to feed us within our gut.

Caroline Aitken is director of Patrick Whitefield Associates and a visiting teacher on the current Forest Gardens and Edible Ecosystems course.