"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Down to Earth Disaster: We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

Down to Earth Disaster
We’re treating soil like dirt.
It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it


Tractor ploughing

'While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it.' Photograph: Lester Lefkowitz/Corbis

War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.

The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation. A paper just published in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th-century French lake. It reveals that the intensification of farming over the past century has increased the rate of soil erosion sixtyfold.

Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.

Darren and Julia Quenault on their farmWhenever I mention this issue, people ask: “But surely farmers have an interest in looking after their soil?” They do, and there are many excellent cultivators who seek to keep their soil on the land. There are also some terrible farmers, often absentees, who allow contractors to rip their fields to shreds for the sake of a quick profit. Even the good ones are hampered by an economic and political system that could scarcely be better designed to frustrate them.

This is the International Year of Soils, but you wouldn’t know it. In January, the Westminster government published a new set of soil standards, marginally better than those they replaced, but wholly unmatched to the scale of the problem. There are no penalities for compromising our survival except a partial withholding of public subsidies. Yet even this pathetic guidance is considered intolerable by the National Farmers’ Union, which greeted them with bitter complaints. Sometimes the NFU seems to me to exist to champion bad practice and block any possibility of positive change.

Few sights are as gruesome as the glee with which the NFU celebrated the death last year of the European soil framework directive, the only measure with the potential to arrest our soil-erosion crisis. The NFU, supported by successive British governments, fought for eight years to destroy it, then crowed like a shedful of cockerels when it won. Looking back on this episode, we will see it as a parable of our times.

Soon after that, the business minister, Matthew Hancock, announced that he was putting “business in charge of driving reform”: trade associations would be able “to review enforcement of regulation in their sectors.” The NFU was one the first two bodies granted this privilege. Hancock explained that this “is all part of our unambiguously pro-business agenda to increase the financial security of the British people.” But it doesn’t increase our security, financial or otherwise. It undermines it.

The government’s deregulation bill, which has now almost completed its passage through parliament, will force regulators – including those charged with protecting the fabric of the land – to “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. But short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival. This “unambiguously pro-business agenda” is deregulating us to death.

There’s no longer even an appetite for studying the problem. Just one university – Aberdeen – now offers a degree in soil science. All the rest have been closed down.

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere. In its early stages, globalisation enhances resilience: people are no longer dependent on the vagaries of local production. But as it proceeds, spreading the same destructive processes to all corners of the Earth, it undermines resilience, as it threatens to bring down systems everywhere.

Short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival

Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison. What appear to be great crises are slight and evanescent when held up against the steady trickling away of our subsistence.

The avoidance of this issue is perhaps the greatest social silence of all. Our insulation from the forces of nature has encouraged a belief in the dematerialisation of our lives, as if we no longer subsist on food and water, but on bits and bytes. This is a belief that can be entertained only by people who have never experienced serious hardship, and who are therefore unaware of the contingency of existence.

It’s not as if we are short of solutions. While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.

There are dozens of ways of doing it: we need never see bare soil again. But in the UK, as in most rich nations, we have scarcely begun to experiment with the technique, despite the best efforts of the magazine Practical Farm Ideas.

Even better are some of the methods that fall under the heading of permaculture – working with complex natural systems rather than seeking to simplify or replace them. Pioneers such as Sepp Holzer and Geoff Lawton have achieved remarkable yields of fruit and vegetables in places that seemed unfarmable: 1,100m above sea level in the Austrian alps, for example, or in the salt-shrivelled Jordanian desert.

But, though every year our government spends £450m on agricultural research and development – much of it on techniques that wreck our soils – there is no mention of permaculture either on the websites of the two main funding bodies (NERC and BBSRC) or in any other department.

The macho commitment to destructive short-termism appears to resist all evidence and all logic. Never mind life on Earth; we’ll plough on regardless.


How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes




The UK government let the farming lobby rip up the rulebook on soil protection – and now we are suffering the consequences

It has the force of a parable. Along the road from High Ham to Burrowbridge, which skirts Lake Paterson (formerly known as the Somerset Levels), you can see field after field of harvested maize. In some places the crop lines run straight down the hill and into the water. When it rains, the water and soil flash off into the lake. Seldom are cause and effect so visible.

That's what I saw on Tuesday. On Friday, I travelled to the source of the Thames. Within 300 metres of the stone that marked it were ploughed fields, overhanging the catchment, left bare through the winter and compacted by heavy machinery. Muddy water sluiced down the roads. A few score miles downstream it will reappear in people's living rooms. You can see the same thing happening across the Thames watershed: 184 miles of idiocy, perfectly calibrated to cause disaster.

Two realities, perennially denied or ignored by members of this government, now seep under their doors. In September the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, assured us that climate change "is something we can adapt to over time and we are very good as a race at adapting". If two months of severe weather almost sends the country into meltdown, who knows what four degrees of global warming will do?

The second issue, once it trickles into national consciousness, is just as politically potent: the government's bonfire of regulations.

Flooding soil run off Kemble Thames source
'Mud pours straight off this field near the source of the Thames. Tomorrow it will end up in people's houses.'  Photograph: George Monbiot

Almost as soon as it took office, this government appointed a task force to investigate farming rules. Its chairman was the former director general of the National Farmers' Union. Who could have guessed that he would recommend "an entirely new approach to and culture of regulation … Government must trust industry"? The task force's demands, embraced by Paterson, now look as stupid as Gordon Brown's speech to an audience of bankers in 2004: "In budget after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk takers."

Six weeks before the floods arrived, a scientific journal called Soil Use and Management published a paper warning that disaster was brewing. Surface water run-off in south-west England, where the Somerset Levels are situated, was reaching a critical point. Thanks to a wholesale change in the way the land is cultivated, at 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water – instead of percolating into the ground – is now pouring off the fields.

Farmers have been ploughing land that was previously untilled and switching from spring to winter sowing, leaving the soil bare during the rainy season. Worst of all is the shift towards growing maize, whose cultivated area in this country has risen from 1,400 hectares to 160,000 since 1970.

In three quarters of the maize fields in the south-west, the soil structure has broken down to the extent that they now contribute to flooding. In many of these fields, soil, fertilisers and pesticides are sloshing away with the water. And nothing of substance, the paper warned, is being done to stop it. Dated: December 2013.

Maize is being grown in Britain not to feed people, but to feed livestock and, increasingly, the biofuel business. This false solution to climate change will make the impacts of climate change much worse, by reducing the land's capacity to hold water.

The previous government also saw it coming. In 2005 it published a devastating catalogue of the impacts of these changes in land use. As well as the loss of fertility from the land and the poisoning of watercourses, it warned, "increased run-off and sediment deposition can also increase flood hazard in rivers". Maize, it warned, is a particular problem because the soil stays bare before and after the crop is harvested, without the stubble or weeds required to bind it. "Wherever possible," it urged, "avoid growing forage maize on high and very high erosion risk areas."

The Labour government turned this advice into conditions attached to farm subsidies. Ground cover crops should be sown under the maize and the land should be ploughed, then resown with winter cover plants within 10 days of harvesting, to prevent water from sheeting off. So why isn't this happening in Somerset?

Because the current government dropped the conditions. Sorry, not just dropped them. It issued – wait for it – a specific exemption for maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures.

Flooding soil runoff Thames source Kemble
As the water runs off the land, it takes the silt with it. Photograph: George Monbiot

It's hard to get your head round this. The crop which causes most floods and does most damage to soils is the only one which is completely unregulated.

When soil enters a river we call it silt. A few hundred metres from where the soil is running down the hills, a banner over the River Parrett shouts: "Stop the flooding, dredge the rivers." Angry locals assail ministers and officials with this demand. While in almost all circumstances, dredging causes more problems than it solves, and though, as even Owen Paterson admits, "increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would not have prevented the recent widespread flooding", there's an argument here for a small amount of dredging at strategic points.

But to do it while the soil is washing off the fields is like trying to empty the bath while the taps are running.

soil erosion hi-res
This satellite image, taken on 16 February, shows where our soil goes once it's washed off our fields. Photograph: Dundee Satellite Receiving Station

So why did government policy change? I've tried asking the environment department: they're as much use as a paper sandbag. But I've found a clue. The farm regulation task force demanded a specific change: all soil protection rules attached to farm subsidies should become voluntary. They should be downgraded from a legal condition to an "advisory feature". Even if farmers do nothing to protect their soil, they should still be eligible for public money.

You might have entertained the naive belief that in handing out billions to wealthy landowners we would get something in return. Something other than endless whining from the National Farmers' Union. But so successfully has policy been captured in this country that Defra – which used to stand for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – now means Doing Everything Farmers' Representatives Ask. We pay £3.6bn a year for the privilege of having our wildlife exterminated, our hills grazed bare, our rivers polluted and our sitting rooms flooded.

Yes, it's a parable all right, a parable of human folly, of the kind that used to end with 300 cubits of gopher wood and a journey to the mountains of Ararat. Antediluvian? You bet it is.

For more information about soil see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/soil
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