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Are we Standing on the Solution to Climate Crisis?

by Kitty Ratcliffe, Curious PR Intern

In June, the Curious PR team headed to the green fields of Hertfordshire to attend Groundswell, an increasingly important conference of all things agriculture, where 3,500 farmers and environment enthusiasts gathered for panels and talks by experts in the field.


This year, Groundswell was graced by none other than Environment Minister, George Eustace, as well as Baroness Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, who were eager to show their stance and show support - no great surprise, given that agriculture policy is facing its biggest shake-up in a generation.


We hit the ground to hear more about soil and regenerative farming, as part of our work for uksoils, but our team came away having got stuck into everything from ‘How to use natural dyes for fabrics’ to the complex inner life of Funghi via the inspirational expert, Merlin Sheldrake, and heard book readings from Jake Fiennes (Land Healer) and Sarah Langord (Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution).


Woven through most discussions was the material from which most life emerges, and nourishes us: soil - the beautifully complex substance that is crucial to tackling the climate crisis because it stores carbon (amongst a plethora of roles) and healthy soils are a major key to reversing the terrifying decline in Britain’s biodiversity.


“The solution is right under our feet, and it’s as old as dirt”.

-Woody Harrelson, inKiss The Groundon Netflix.


Did you know that soil stores carbon?

It’s an enticing fact that increasing the amount of carbon stored in the world’s soils by just 0.4% a year would sequester the same amount of carbon that humanity emits each year!


As we know, the large amount of carbon in the atmosphere is proving to be one of the biggest threats to our planet, pushing us further and further into a climate crisis. So achieving this would help us slow down the crisis. It could be the key to reaching Net Zero.


The benefit of improving soil health does not stop there: by increasing organic matter in soils, we also increase its biodiversity - introducing a multitude of different microorganisms and fungi. In fact, Just ONE teaspoon of topsoil can contain over 10,000 different species!?


A recent report by the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services) echoes this message. Our relationship with nature is in dire need of change; we repeatedly put economic and political value above the value of nature, which is simply unsustainable. As the report states, to rectify the damage we have done to biodiversity and ecosystems, we must prioritise nature - in all areas of life. Improving the world’s soil health is one step towards this.


A BBC video succinctly entitled, ‘Why soil is one of the most amazing things on Earth’ is a great introduction to soils’ remarkable capabilities

Why soil is one of the most amazing things on Earth | BBC Ideas


With all the benefits soil can bring, it is worrying to see its current parlous state in many regions of the world, thanks to processes such as wind erosion, flooding and ploughing up farmland (which can cause degradation and lead to infertile lands).

The world is losing 30 football pitches of soil every minute. In consequence, soil carbon is released back into the atmosphere - exactly where we do NOT want it!

It is reported that in the UK, over 2 million hectares of soil are at risk of soil erosion, and a further 4 million are at risk of soil compaction in the UK (Environment Agency 2019 Report). This puts the UK at risk of losing precious farming land, straining our economy and increasing reliance on foreign exports - notwithstanding the war in Ukraine (which is normally the world’s fourth largest grain exporter) and import challenges we face, post Brexit.


As a result of the war, some environmentalists fear we will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject green policies in favour of ‘the bad old days of farming practices’ to address the crisis. Clearly something needs to be done in order to restore our soils - and quickly. But how exactly can we go about this? And who are the people rooting for this change?


EMBRACING REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE


To answer these questions, let’s go back to Groundswell, where we heard the founder of The Global Food and Farm Community, Jill Clapperton, speak about “Creating Healthy Productive Soil that Grows Nutritious Food”. Jill’s answer to confronting these challenges is ‘regenerative agriculture’, or ‘life’ as she gilbly put it.

So what exactly is Regenerative Agriculture? Put simply, it is the incorporation of farming and grazing practices that aim to rebuild soil health and add more plant nutrients by increasing organic matter and biodiversity. Jill outlined some of the methods farmers can use for this approach:

  • The “no-till” method - farmers refrain from disturbing the soil through tillage (mechanical agitation of soil for agricultural preparation)

  • Increasing plant diversity in the fields - to increase the number of roots and organic matter in the soil, improving production of nutrients and carbon storage levels.

  • Use of organic fertilisers - to reduce nitrate levels in the soil and restore plant growth.

Many would argue these are difficult to achieve, and will take time to adopt, but whatever happens, we must move fast. Educating multiple stakeholders to this end is crucial, and what we are aiming for here at Curious PR via our activities. (More to follow, there…)


UTILISING THE MAGIC OF FUNGI

Groundswell also gave us the privilege of listening to the well known mycologist and author, Merlin Sheldrake, on the importance of fungi for plant production and health. We learnt that many species of fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. (For example, Mycorrhizal fungi provide nitrogen, phosphorus and other key nutrients to the plant in exchange for carbon.) These vast fungal networks span the soil, connecting and giving life to plants, as well as increasing soil biodiversity. Indeed 90% of plants are completely dependent on their relationship with fungi!


Sheldrake claims that fungi and plants are so interlinked, we can barely call them separate entities - with fungi being fundamental to plant growth! We must therefore foster the dense fungal networks that span beneath our feet. This fascinating animation shows a laser scan of a root, displaying how closely plant tissue (in blue) is intertwined with the mycorrhizal fungi (in red).

To improve the fungal networks in our soil, Sheldrake warns against using artificial fertilisers, as this changes carbon interactions between plant and fungi, making fungi “lazy” on carbon uptake. He also warns against monoculture farmland, which does not foster a diverse fungal network in the soil, negatively impacting plant health and soil biodiversity. Farmers are encouraged to measure the mycelium present in their soil in order to build a healthier fungal network, and in turn, produce healthier crops with a larger yield.


SO, WHAT IS BEING DONE TO IMPROVE SOIL HEALTH?

Thankfully, due to new research, lobbying, and growing public awareness of soil’s importance, the UK Government has begun to take soil health seriously. Its 25 Year Environment Plan includes a target to make all English soils managed

sustainably by 2030. The focus will specifically be on developing soil metrics and management approaches. This could mean healthier soil, and therefore a happier planet! However, there are additional factors at play to add to the complexity…


ARE TREES THE MAIN SOLUTION?


The Committee on Climate Change advised the government that as much as 1/5 of farmland should be taken out of food production in order to store carbon through tree growth. There are issues with this approach. At Groundswell, Minette Batters, President of the NFU (National Farmers’ Union of England & Wales) argued that grassland is far superior at storing carbon than trees: grasslands can store 70% of our carbon as opposed to only a 23% capacity in trees. If this is the case, then removing ⅕ of farmland specifically for tree growth could arguably make the earth’s carbon levels worse, rather than better….

The path is evidently not straightforward, and has led to much heated debate. There were a few hecklers amongst the audience, in fact! Here at Curious PR, we argue that actions to help soil must be done in a non-political fashion based on solid science: ‘One vision across the whole system’ - as phrased by Henry Dimbleby, Co-founder of food chain, Leon, who was invited to write the Government's independent National Food Strategy in 2021.


Sadly, a united, consistent vision does not exist, according to Minette Batters, who describes the UK’s food strategy as ‘flip-flopping’ between governments. We need a concrete and stable plan for the future if we are going to successfully tackle this issue. There is much to be done, but the Government's commitment to helping soil conditions seems promising. Our team on the ground at Groundswell sensed a genuine feeling of determined unity in the room, despite a few tough questions from the Floor to the Minister.


With new methods and research, and adequate resources, we should be able not only to save our current soils from the threat of erosion and compaction, but ensure that all future soil is produced and looked after sustainably and successfully.


CONNECTING COMMUNITIES BACK TO THEIR ROOTS

Whilst it may be great news that the Government is trying to work towards healthier soil, we are convinced that public perception and understanding of where food comes from is in a sorry state. Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, noted that many people have ‘no idea where their food comes from’, creating a society where people don’t care about where (or how) it is sourced. There is hope that this will change in the future however, with organisations such as The Green Schools Project, The Urban Worm, Social Farms and Garden - working hard to bring communities back to their roots.


Minette Batters’ point was echoed by Baroness Natalie Bennett, Member of the House of Lords, and Leader of the Green Party between 2012-2016. She pointed to the lack of unified thinking between agricultural policy and public health - a subject very close to our hearts here at Curious PR. As our founder, Hannah Kapff, told PR Week magazine back in 2015, "Health and environment are two sides of the same coin." The obesity crisis is a case in point, with high-calorie, nutrient-poor diets prevailing across the UK, and 1 in 10 people over 40 diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, (and growing). This points to an urgent need for improved awareness and care for what people are putting into their bodies, and - we hope - how it was grown.


‘Are we ready to fully embrace what it means to be regenerative?’


This was the question for a panel led by food and farming ‘action-ists’, Dee Woods, India Hamilton and John Cherry. They mooted ways that soil can be regenerative, and so too, Society and the food system as a whole.

Dee is a co-founder of Granville community kitchen, an organisation set up to re-orientate the focus of food production back on the community. She created a localised food system where “everyone can join in and have agency” in the food they consume - aware of where their food comes from, building a sense of ‘togetherness’ to combat the “entrenched deprivation, disenfranchisement and ongoing fragmentation of the local community.”


Meanwhile, India Hamilton, agreed that a sense of community needs to be more ingrained in the Food System. She founded ‘The Sustainable Food Cooperative (SCOOP’ community kitchen in Jersey to put consumers at the heart of what they do in a number of ways. For instance, tackling food pricing issues by helping low-income families get access to organic produce.

SCOOP recognises the importance of educating the young about where their food comes from - engaging and inspiring young people to better understand the food they eat and take the lead in protection for the environment.’


EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION.


Education is at the core of building social awareness on the issues of food production and climate change. So said Sarah Alun-Jones, a member of the team who set up the GROW farm, an outdoor learning hub in London that has spent the last 3 years building a 6 acre agro-ecological farm on land owned by a state secondary school.


The farm educates children about processes in the food system, with the children fully participating in food production via a regenerative system that supplies The Totteridge Academy’s school canteen. Surely, there is no more enlightened a way of getting the next generation to see food ‘from seed to plate’, and to foster a common understanding of the importance of a healthy, productive food system.


There is clearly still a lot of work to be done to spread awareness and knowledge surrounding our food processes, however with the work of farmers, environmentalists, activists, government bodies, and the general public, things are looking hopeful. With more awareness about soil will come greater interest (and pressure) to improve soil health, and, in consequence, grow a more sustainable planet.

FEEDING THE FUTURE


There’s a lot to consider here, but one thing is clear, we MUST pay attention to the current soil crisis, and do what we can to save our soils. Otherwise, we can expect severe, and irreversible, consequences, both for our climate and our food system.

We were lucky to be at Groundswell to deepen our understanding and knowledge about sustainable farming and food production. If you want to LEARN more about soil - whatever your job, location or lifestyle, find out more via uksoils with whom we are working via www.uksoils.org.uk or follow this not-for-profit organisation via Facebook https://www.facebook.com/uksoils | Twitter: uksoils | Instagram: uksoils LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/mwlite/company/uksoils




For content of Groundswell 2022, visit https://www.youtube.com/c/GroundswellAgriculture/videos

Or visit website: https://groundswellag.com/.