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Making soils count in UK policy

When I started my project on the changing attitudes to soils in the UK conventional farming community eighteen months ago, I bought myself a pair of sturdy and sensible wellies. I foresaw a lot of time spent in muddy fields and at fringe farming events. I never thought I would be standing at the terrace of Westminster Palace, looking over a teacup of fine bone china at Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as he proclaims that soils are the UK’s most valuable resource.

A crowd of soil enthusiasts at the SSA event; picture by Joel Williams, with permission.

Michael Gove’s speech took place at a parliamentary reception organised by the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA), a new group whose mission is to embed soil care in UK’s food and environment policy. After WWII, the UK’s soils policy focused on productivity and expansion through drainage, machinery, and inputs. Soils figured in policy rarely, and when they did it was in relation to either pollution, or flooding. Arguably, it was the 2014 floods which put soils on the policy agenda in recent years. George Monbiot’s memorable article, and the even more memorable picture which accompanied it of the island losing its topsoil into the ocean, was something of a turning point. Monbiot linked flooding with land management decisions – and this connection stuck. It was something to build on as Soil Association and other groups took soils up again in 2015, FAO's International Year of Soils. One of the reasons soils are so hard to make into a public issue is that it is tricky to construct clear cause-effect links between processes in soils and observable phenomena. Banks of mud left by retreating flood waters were a way to make the impacts of declining soil quality actually visible. The real challenge, however, is embedding concern about and care for soils beyond such spectacular events, and aligning policy with the slow, complex, invisible worlds of soil.

Sediment around the UK, 8th April 2017. Image by Dundee Satellite Receiving Station .

Elevating soils from the bottom of the pile of political issues is going to be challenging. Scrutinising the list of invited attendees at the SSA event was instructive: universities, research and advisory organisations, permaculturalists, environmentalists and ecologists, a few familiar farmers and farming organisations. Few members of the agri-food chains, and no agri-tech or agri-chemical companies, no machine manufacturers. When I interviewed civil servants in the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about soil issues in 2015 the focus was, and continues to be, peat, both as a conservation issue, and as a potential way for the government to meet its climate change pledges. But soils are so much more than carbon, and more then flood mitigation. Soils, and the life in soils, supports all other life – insects, animals, and birds, plant environments, and eventually us. Soils are not ‘farming’. Soils are not ‘environment’. Soils are the foundation of all terrestrial existence. How do you deal with that in a policy context?

When we think of soils exclusively as ‘for’ one thing – ‘for’ wheat farming, ‘for’ conifer plantations – all these other uses of soils, by other creatures, fall out of the conversation. They become something extra – something that is nice to have, but which is not essential for human survival. But that is not true. All these other soil users are crucial for the survival – and happiness (are we allowed to speak about happiness in policy?) of humans. Imagine a world which is just humans and fields of monocrops – this is not a world we could live in. That is because our lives depend on the lives of insects, animals, and plants which we do not eat, but with whom we are connected in various foodwebs which we are only starting to understand. The decline of soils is a decline of all life.

It is this inter-connectedness, and foundational character of soils as land that the Sustainable Soils Alliance will need to both embrace and deal with. As I listened to Neville Fay, the founder of the group, I knew this was at the heart of their mission – to put soils back at the centre of land use decisions across the board. When we think about soils beyond the food production paradigm, and think of them as that which makes life possible, the question becomes not – what do soils need to do to support our land use decisions, but – how do our land use decisions have to change to support soils. As soils become more of a focus for UK policy there will be some relatively easy, pragmatic solutions – providing financial support for land managers, monitoring soil qualities, and developing ongoing farming-research relationships. But there are further difficult and inescapable questions that thinking about soils forces us to tackle. About whose right to land counts for more, and whose for less, whose needs are privileged, and whose are neglected. Questions about sharing the land, but also sparing it – of sacrificing something so that we can continue living on the surface of this fragile island.

Anna Krzywoszynska is the founder and coordinator of the Soil Care Network, and a social scientist of soils at the University of Sheffield. She advises and supports the Sustainable Soils Alliance.

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