1 Oct 2009

'Safeguarding our Soils' fails us?

Safeguarding our Soils - A Strategy for England was out a wee while ago - it is a well presented comprehensive coverage of all the inter-connected issues, except that it manages to avoid saying anything about pesticides, or oil based fertilisers and their connection to peak oil, or the need to reduce the proportion of land used to grow animal feeds in favour of crops for more direct human consumption or the key failures of intensive agriculture.

Professor Bob Watson said safeguarding soil would be "critical" if food production is to double in the next 20-30 years. He is quoted saying: "We face many challenges of climate change, we do have to produce twice as much food, it needs to be more nutritious, and if we don't take care of our soil and our water, we will not be able to accomplish that task. We have come to a point now to recognise safeguarding our soil, improving our soil, sustainably managing our soil – not only in the rural area but also in the urban area – is absolutely fundamental long-term."

Soil is the second biggest carbon store after the oceans, and the UK's soils contain 10 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 57 times the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the country. Britain's soils hold more carbon than all the trees in Europe's forests – and their protection is critical if we are to successfully combat climate change. The Government's 20-year soil strategy sets out very welcomed measures to protect carbon-rich peat bogs to prevent the release of carbon dioxide from peatland habitats, which store half of all the carbon found in the UK's soils.

It also covers measures to reduce the rate of release of carbon from the soil to tackle climate change, protect soils in urban areas during development, support farmers to manage the earth on their land and prevent pollution and contamination. Carbon storage in soils is crucial - an issue recently discussed in Randwick with a preview of a new Aussie film - see brief stuff here - but the solutions raised in that film don't seem to be so apparent in this strategy.

Having said that it is a great shift away from the Government's crazy policy of increasing dependence on imports - a policy criticised by Greens for many years.

Anyway DEFRA and Hilary Benn seem to think the only way to get everyone on-side is to blame the impoverishment of the soil on past industrial pollution, "natural" erosion, worsening of erosion due to climate change, a bit of inappropriate ploughing and the failure to throw in a bit of organic matter. Then move on to make the case for more research by saying it can only get worse as demand increases and climate change exacerbates the situation.

Today I see the Soil Association rejects the Government's new strategy as 'deeply unambitious' and says it wont protect against climate change. Here's what they write:

The leading soil scientists agree that organic farming will result in higher soil carbon levels compared to non-organic farming. One of the most important factors influencing soil carbon sequestration is the level and type of organic matter added to the soil, so farming methods based on the incorporation of livestock manures and fertility building plants into the system (as organic farming does) can provide significant soil carbon benefits.

The Soil Association warmly welcomes the government's recognition that our current system of applying large amounts of inputs, such as nitrogen fertilizer is ‘not sustainable in the long term'.

Defra should adopt the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) soil carbon guidelines for accounting for changes in soil carbon, or a more sophisticated system of carbon accounting. Although the IPCC guidelines are still fairly basic, this would be a key step towards recognising the carbon effects of agricultural management and prompt efforts to improve accounting.

So this report has some good stuff but is a missed opportunity. Download here. Thanks for Gerald for pointing this out to me!

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