The Sustainable Soils Alliance recently hosted a groundbreaking event that brought government ministers into the same room as campaigners, and found that they shared an understanding of the importance of soil. But we need to be mindful of the distinction between rhetoric and action.
So much was clear as the Real Farming Conference celebrated its first decade. The conference was initially set up in direct opposition to the Oxford Farming Conference, its “mainstream”, National Farmers’ Union-backed sister. They run on the same days, in the same city.
Looking back at the tweets emerging from the two this year, it was sometimes difficult to know which was which. New terms like “agroecology” were emerging from the older sister, as well as expressions of the need to protect and restore soil health and to slash the use of pesticides and fertilisers. We're hearing similar things from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and even from the mouth of Conservative Secretary of State Michael Gove.
Standards and definitions
We're beginning to understand that agriculture must slash its climate change emissions and that it cannot keep coshing nature with pesticides that have done enormous damage to our ecosystems. Soils can be fertile without artificial fertilisers if the health of immensely complex natural systems is to be maintained.
So there’s a lot of talk about agroecology and the soil health it produces – and a lot of apparent agreement. Many agree that agroecology is “an ecosystems approach to agriculture”. But beyond that, what it actually is, and which systems and methods can be included within it, is open to a very wide range of definitions.
Saying that we need to adopt agroecology to prevent climate change, ensure food security and end the trashing of our collapsing ecosystems is a statement with which many will agree, then, but that alone doesn’t get us far.
Many experts in the field might visit a farm and broadly agree on whether or not it fits the classification, but “it feels right” is no basis for a system of certification. We need a more robust means for consumers, retailers and regulators to classify farms as meeting the standard of being agroecological.
But we don’t have time to develop the necessary framework. The IPCC has told us we have just 12 years to turn this planet around and slash our carbon emissions. Insect studies are demonstrating that our ecosystems are on the very edge of disaster. The state of our soils is an enormous threat to future food security.
Governments, communities, and consumers need to act not to demand that our lands be farmed agroecologically.
So what to do? There are several traditional systems that produce agroecological outcomes. Permaculture and biodynamics are two, but the first has defied attempts to classify it and is uncomfortable with the embrace of regulation; the second has a basis in beliefs that don’t fit comfortably with most.
There is only one alternative available: organics. There is a well-established legal and classificatory framework and registration systems for organically produced food.
In the UK, just 517,000 hectares of land is farmed organically, 2.9 percent of the total farmed area. That’s not much.
But the story is very different in other parts of the EU. Across the entire Union, 7 percent of land is farmed organically, but it is 24 percent in Austria, 19 percent in Sweden and 15 percent in Italy. These countries have led the way, shown what is possible when organic agriculture is promoted by governments and demanded by consumers.
There’s a lot of evidence that there’s a great and unmet demand for organic produce across the world. And there’s the practical reality of a world in which we’re already at, or have exceeded, our planetary limits.
We need to make organic the basic standard, the way we expect farming to be conducted.
One of the current problems with that is that certification is expensive - a cost that can be hard for farmers to meet - and the continuing cost of inspection and checking also has significant costs.
One questioner of Michael Gove in his first visit to the Real Farming Conference in 2018 had a suggestion to deal with this. Instead of having to be specially certified as organic, why should any farmer not using organic methods have to face the costs of registration, of checking of their methods and approach, and of labelling appropriately their methods so consumers can know what they are buying?
We need to make organic farming our standard farming system. Any deviation from that should occur only when it's absolutely necessary – and should be documented, controlled and labelled accordingly. The costs of this deviation should be borne by the producer of non-organic food.
If we are going to look after our soils, and our fragile, much-abused planet, that’s the only alternative.
Natalie Bennett recently completed a review of recent literature on soil carbon for Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato. Rich Earth covers the views outlined here in more detail.
Image: George M. Groutas, Flickr.