World Soil Day: Destruction of healthy soils in UK could happen within 30 years. Here's how to avoid this existential threat – Philip Lymbery

Healthy soil is full of worms and a host of other organisms (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)Healthy soil is full of worms and a host of other organisms (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)
Healthy soil is full of worms and a host of other organisms (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)
Regular readers of this column will know that I’m very much in favour of restoring farmed animals to our fields and bringing landscapes to life through rewilding.

I see it as a cause for celebration every time the lives of cows or chickens are transformed for the better by being released onto pasture. The same goes for reintroducing iconic species like beavers or bison, the latter much vaunted recently by Leonardo DiCaprio when the UK’s first wild bison calf for thousands of years was born.

But what about bringing back the elephant? I was recently in a packed hall of farmers and local community activists in the Fenland city of Ely, Cambridgeshire, when I suggested just that. How did the idea go down? With intrigue and receptiveness. A good number of people came up to me afterwards and said they were inspired.

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So how would bringing back five tonnes of creature work in practice? Well, here I should declare that I wasn’t talking literally about bringing back big grey animals with a long trunk and floppy ears. I was being metaphoric. But, at the same time, deadly serious.

In the perfect synergy of rewilding and farming, the next big opportunity lies in bringing back the elephant’s weight of biodiversity that should otherwise be under each football pitch-sized patch of depleted farmland soils.

And boy do we need to revitalise our soil. In the Fens of England – Britain’s breadbasket region – soil is being lost at the rate of nearly an inch a year. At that rate, topsoil could be gone in decades. Similar declines are being experienced the world over. Behind the decline is the industrialisation of agriculture.

‘Poor person’s rainforest’

When he was Environment Secretary, Michael Gove said that the UK was 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility” in parts of the country. The United Nations warns that, carry on as we are with damaging farming methods, and much of the world’s soil could be useless within just 60 years. No soil, no food. Game over.

It’s a pressing concern that caused the UN, nearly a decade ago, to declare December 5 as World Soil Day. Focusing attention on the importance of healthy soil is the aim. After all, soil is where 95 per cent of our food comes from.

Which is why I see the biggest opportunity for rewilding as relating to our depleted farmland soils, which present a massive canvas in desperate need of restoration. The “poor person’s rainforest” is how healthy soils have been described. Treat them well and a vibrant range of life thrives below ground, from bacteria and fungi to insects, earthworms and moles. In total, they add up to about a quarter of all biodiversity on Earth.

Nurturing soil biodiversity below ground very much relies on what happens above. Bringing back an elephant’s weight of biodiversity beneath the soil involves having a patchwork of different plants and animals moving round the farm. In other words, moving away from prairie-like monocultures of the same crop doused in artificial pesticides and fertilisers.

Regenerating the countryside is key – returning farmed animals to the fields and pastures as part of mixed, rotational farms. Here, the animals can fertilise soils naturally whilst experiencing the very best animal welfare and bringing back biodiversity.

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Healthy soil is much more than just dirt – it is a living, breathing ecosystem. Treat it right and soil can have a greater weight of life below ground than the livestock above it. On arable land, each hectare – little more than a football pitch – can hold as many as four million worms and 13,000 species of life with a total weight of five tonnes – about the same as an elephant.

What’s soil ever done for us?

Which is important because healthy soil is not only essential for sustainable food, it also protects our climate by holding more carbon than the atmosphere. As soil degrades, it releases carbon. Restore it to health again and it will absorb carbon. Soil is also pretty much the one thing that prevents the world’s rainwater simply running back into rivers and out to sea. It holds rainwater against gravity, making it available for thirsty crops. Even moderately depleted soil can hold less than half the water of healthy soil, which can help landscapes become resilient to droughts and floods.

Soils also include some of the hardiest creatures on the planet. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, can be found in scorching deserts and frozen tundra and can even survive in space. These barrel-chested, eight-legged micro-animals digest food, making the nutrients available for plants.

Healthy soils are amazingly communicative. Fungi form vast underground networks that plants tap into via their roots and use to communicate with each other. Scientists have observed plants sending signals through fungal networks to warn neighbours of insect infestation, drought and other threats. Then there are the ‘litter transformers’ that break stuff down into smaller bits, making it available to microbes – the micro-food web that includes nematodes and protozoa.

All this richness of life is essential to a sustainable future. Which is why I wholeheartedly believe that rewilding’s next big frontier should be in bringing back the ‘elephant’.

In the battle for sustainable food, a liveable climate and a thriving natural world, rewilding the world’s soil offers a huge opportunity. We have the chance to integrate farmed animals and respect their well-being as sentient creatures, to provide good food naturally by dispensing with harmful chemicals and to add the elephant’s weight of biodiversity that should be living beneath every piece of healthy farmland.

Now to me that seems like a new frontier fit for the future.

Philip Lymbery is CEO of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf



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