Our planet may be the only place in the universe where the conditions are right for soil to form. We rely on this miracle substance to grow our food, and it doesn’t usually let us down. So, most people, even some farmers, rarely think about the soil as more than ‘dirt’. But, relentless pressure over several decades to produce more and more food, with little regard for the effect of increasingly intensive agricultural production on soil, has taken its toll on this irreplaceable resource.
There is now real worry that the degradation of agricultural soils, combined with the changing climate and competition for agricultural land for other uses, will affect our ability to grow enough nutritious food in the future. Already, rarely a week goes by without reports in the media about food shortages caused by unpredictable extreme weather events and disease that are seriously affecting human well-being somewhere in the world.
Over the last couple of decades, I have devoted my life to discovering the science behind the remarkable ability of soils to keep on helping farmers to grow food, and what can be done when they don’t.
As a Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry working in world-renowned agricultural research institutes and universities, I have been lucky enough to travel across the world to talk to farmers about their soils and the problems that they are facing in the hope that scientific solutions can be developed.
There are some very common themes amongst concerns expressed by farmers that I have recognised across all continents.
- The weather is becoming more unpredictable, with droughts and flooding becoming more common.
- Yields are stagnant or declining despite using the latest crops, technology and agrochemicals which are all becoming more expensive.
- Breaking soil compaction is a major expense in time and money.
- Top soil losses in run off are causing local pollution problems.
- Weeds and disease are increasingly difficult to deal with.
- Falling farm incomes are forcing farmers to sell land for non-food production and construction.
- Farmers are expected to act as environmental stewards as well as producing food which seem to be opposing demands.
The innovative farmers who are successfully adapting to change and meeting these problems head on are those working in partnership with the life in our soils. These farmers say that getting the organisms in the soil to work with you is a win:win strategy that has reduced their workload and their expenditure on pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation, fuel and livestock medicines, whilst ensuring sustained yields and enabling them to meet their commitments to protect the environment. They recognise that Soil Health is the beating heart at the centre of their farming life.
Optimising Soil Health by managing the physics, chemistry and biology of agricultural soils is now recognised as a major part of the strategy for farmers to improve and sustain their businesses during the current period of intense change and to futureproof their livelihoods against the challenges to come.
What are the signs that soil is healthy? In recent years, I have been working with farmers’ groups in the UK and USA to find out which are the best and most reliable tests for Soil Health that can be easily used by farmers, but are also supported by the latest scientific evidence.
I am very pleased to be working as an independent Soil Health Expert with Vidacycle to develop the Sectormentor for Soils app using my knowledge. Watch out for a series of blogs from me on the Vidacycle website in the coming months, starting with ‘Soil Health – what’s it all about?’ as an introduction to the scientific basis for the individual soil health tests chosen for the Sectormentor for Soils app. If you have any questions you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.