“A clod of earth seems at first sight to be the embodiment of the stillness of death…”
So Sir John Russell opened his unexpectedly compelling book, ‘The World of Soil’ first published in 1957, a year before my birth. I quoted Russell’s words as part of my summing-up at this year’s Land & Food Forum (17/10/15) held at Avon Wildlife Trust’s Feed Bristol site, to show that despite 2015 being the United Nation’s first ‘International Year of the Soil’, the earth beneath our feet and from which much of our food still derives has been of concern for some decades.
Soil was very much the concern of those attending this year’s Forum, with Feed Bristol sitting on the tip of the ‘Blue Finger’ – which as its name suggest is a pointer of land made up of Grades 1, 2 and 3 (‘best and most versatile’) agricultural soils running from the edge of the city out to the great Medieval tithe barn at Winterbourne. ‘Blue’ because that’s the colour used on the soil classification maps to depict these most productive, valuable ‘clods of earth’.
To finish Sir John’s poetic, scientifically underpinned, quote, ‘…but its apparent quiescence is completely illusory; physical, chemical and biological processes are ceaselessly active, bringing about continuous cycles of change, some upgrading, some downgrading, but buffered and saved from violence by the clay and organic matter. A steady balance is thus maintained…’
Scientifically underpinned, because Russell was director of Rothamsted research station for 30 years, the foremost agricultural research station in the world. His genius was to bring what seemed a dry, desiccated ‘dead’ subject matter to life, translating the science into layperson’s language without condescension so ably that it was re-issued as a ’best-seller’ under the Fontana imprint just three years after first publication.The health and availability of soil has again been hitting the headlines in the context of food security. With the world’s human population burgeoning from 2.8 billion in 1957 to over 7 billion today and predicted to ‘peak’ at 9.6 – 11 billion by 2050, it has been estimated that global food production will need to increase by a staggering 70%. Optimists note that comparably massive increases in productivity have been achieved over the past 60 years, certainly assisted by techniques developed by agronomists at Rothamsted and elsewhere, but mainly through the primary input of oil at every level of food production: fertilisers and pesticides, fuelling machinery for cultivation and harvesting, through to processing, packaging and distribution.
Soil Not Oil!
Oil rather than Soil has been the limiting factor for sustaining and increasing productivity. Oil is incredibly energy dense; just two teaspoonfuls of diesel equate to the daily effort of one of the growers and landworkers attending the Land & Food Forum! The food system’s heavy dependence on oil – it takes around 400 gallons of oil to provide a year’s worth of food for the average US citizen – raised concerns amongst policymakers when during the last decade oil prices soared to $147 dollars a barrel. Geologists and environmentalists warned of impending ‘Peak Oil’, as it seemed remaining reserves were dwindling or beyond technology to exploit. That proved a false alarm: a plethora of further reserves were found, extraction techniques evolved to squeeze out the last drops from all but the most inaccessible sources – and the global economic slow-down reduced oil demand. But the principle holds that we need to move away from such heavy dependence on oil, not because it’s running out, but because if we continue to burn fossil fuels, our planet will no longer be habitable due to climate change. A recent study published in Nature concluded that if we are to achieve the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures deemed tolerable, then 83% of global coal reserves, 49% of all gas, and 33% of remaining oil reserves must be left in the ground unburnt.
So after 60 years of being seen as little more than a substrate to stand crops up in, the health and capacity of our soils has again become of concern – and not just to the pioneering growers and ‘soil-heads’ to be found at this year’s Land & Food Forum. A Parliamentary Briefing of 2006 devoted to the state of UK soils, unearthed the findings of the late, great Soil Survey of England and Wales (sold off in 1987 by Mrs Thatcher) that 44% of arable soils in England and Wales were at risk of erosion. The 2006 briefing, ‘UK Soil Degradation’, gave an unsettling update – 17% of English arable land is now classified as actually eroded and even more alarmingly, it noted that nearly one-fifth of all organic matter present in our soils in 1980 had been beaten out of existence (along with all its myriad microorganisms) by 1995. Were Sir John Russell still with us to examine those clods of earth he would find that they are now indeed little more than the ‘embodiment of the stillness of death’. With that loss of organic matter the soil’s other key ecosystem service of locking away carbon dioxide is stripped away. Research published last year by Sheffield University scientists, Drs Jill Edmondson and Nigel Dunnett, secured the attention grabbing headlines, ‘Only 100 Harvests Left!’ Their work comparing the organic matter content of rural soils with those found in urban gardens, parks and allotments – showed the latter contained over 30% more organic matter and thus are far more resilient than the farmed fields currently producing most of our food.
As I write, my daughter’s school like many others across the country has been celebrating its Harvest Festival. There is something hugely touching and encouraging in this timeless marking and celebration of the harvest being brought home – just as it was brought into the Tithe Barn at Winterbourne back in the 14th Century. The fruit, vegetables, bread, tins of beans etc. brought into schools and churches to dress the harvest displays, mostly purchased from the nearest supermarket may not even have been grown in our soils – but if they were, the levels of key minerals, trace elements and micronutrients they contain will be much lower than those found in the foodstuffs raised from our soils of 50 – 60 years ago. That apparent cornucopia of produce piled up on supermarket shelves looks cosmetically perfect, but nutritionally may be little better than eating cotton wool – filling our stomachs, but not sustaining optimum health.
The data underpinning such apparently hyperbolic statements has been rigorously compiled over 50 years by two of the under-sung saints of public health, Professor Robert McCance and Dr Elsie Widdowson, who worked together to compile ‘the most detailed and sophisticated historical records of the nutrient values of foods available to any nation worldwide’. Amongst food scientists, nutritionists and agricultural researchers, their life’s work, ‘The Composition of Foods 1940-91’ and its subsequent forms is simply referred to as ‘McCance and Widdowson’. Over five decades they revealed some alarming trends in the state of our soils and consequently the state of our food: key minerals and trace elements that underpin our physical and wellbeing, the absence or imbalance of which are linked to increasingly prevalent conditions such as ADHD, depression, stress, anxiety, mental illness, have been leached out:
• Dairy milk, by 1991, had lost 97% of the copper, 83% of the iron found in 1940
• Vegetables contained 76% less copper, 46% less calcium, 24% less magnesium
• Meat had less than half the copper and iron found in 1940.
A recent, similar study from the US corroborates McCance and Widdowson’s findings and concluded that it is modern intensive farming techniques that are the most likely cause. A summary of that US study was published serendipitously in New Scientist magazine on the day of the Land & Food Forum. Modern intensive farming appears far more efficient than the low-carbon, human-powered horticulture practised at sites like Feed Bristol, but increasingly produces ‘Ersatz’ rather than truly nourishing foods.
With his natural bent for turning a good phrase and creating a memorable image, John Russell talked of ‘a tablespoonful of healthy soil’ containing more living mini-beasts and microorganisms than there were humans on Earth (In 1957 the global population stood at 2.8 billion – perhaps questionable today with 7.3 billion people on Earth) and that a healthy pasture held an equivalent weight of those essential engineers, earthworms, beneath each beast that grazed above them. Healthy soil not only teems with life vital for its fertility, but which nourishes us in other ways. One of those myriad micro-organisms, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to have the same effect on our biochemistry as Prozac. Professor Chris Lowry and colleagues at the University identified the process whereby the microbe activated neurons in the brain that contain serotonin, the ‘happy brain chemical’. Under the stressed situation of being put in a tank of water, mice inoculated with M. vaccae continued swimming for 2.5 minutes longer than control mice. Presumably the inoculated mice had a greater sense of optimism that the professors would eventually rescue them! This microbe, available free to all gardeners, allotment holders, and growers, can be breathed in, absorbed via the skin or more readily through cuts and grazes. The old adage about the benefits of ‘getting your hands dirty’ holds more veracity than we suspected.
The healing power of soils, of working in, and being connected to nature and natural processes is an area gaining increasing credence and interest. Several Wildlife Trusts, including Avon Wildlife Trust and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, run ‘Nature, Health and Wellbeing’ programmes – and a number of GPs and health professionals refer patients to ‘Green Care’ and ‘Ecotherapy’ sessions. But despite a mounting body of evidence, mainstream medicine still prioritises prescribing pharmaceuticals – even though they can cause side-effects identical to those they are supposed to cure . As well as side-effects on patients, pharmaceuticals affect our environment – with 30-90% of active ingredients simply passing through our bodies and escaping into our rivers and streams from sewage treatment works, wildlife is being medicated on a wholesale basis. Anti-inflammatory drugs have been isolated from the fur of otters tested across six English counties. Starlings and other birds that feed on the rich insect life that arises from sewage works’ filter beds have been shown to accumulate antidepressants causing them to lose their appetite and libido – so reducing their breeding rates.
Pioneering individuals and organisations, like those represented at the Land & Food Forum, recognise the need to heal and renew our depleted, battered soils – if we are to heal and renew ourselves. Amongst those pioneers are the Soil Sisters , who brought ritual, celebration and some much needed fun to leaven discussions around the weighty issue of soil degradation – and a serious policy proposal in the form of a ‘Declaration for Soils’ . At the heart of that Declaration lies, ‘the need to reconnect to soil as a fundamental building block of a sustainable resilient city’ and for enabling more people to make that connection and literally get their hands (and hearts) in the soil. In that aim, today’s Soil Sisters share the vision of Soil Association founder, Eve Balfour, who in her seminal work ‘The Living Soil’ published in 1943 wrote,
‘My subject is food which concerns everyone; it is health which concerns everyone; it is soil, which concerns everyone – though they may not realise it.’
The World of Soil, Sir E. John Russell, The New Naturalist Series, 1957
Issued by The Fontana Library, 1961.
UN World Population prospects: the 2010 revision.
Pimental D & Giampetro M, Food, Land, Population and the US Economy, Carrying Capacity Network 1994.
The global soil carbon pool is approximately 3.1 times larger than the atmospheric pool of 800 GT (Oelkers & Cole 2008). Only the ocean has a larger carbon pool, at about 38,400 GT of C, mostly in inorganic forms (Houghton 2007).
Nutrition and Health, 2007, Vol. 19, pp. 21–55 0260–1060/07 THE MINERAL DEPLETION OF FOODS AVAILABLE TO US AS A NATION (1940–2002) – A Review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson, DAVID THOMAS, Fellow of the Geological Society, founder Member of the Register of Nutritional Therapists.
New Scientist, No 3043, Empty Calories, Modern food is plentiful…but is it still good for us, 17 October 2015.
Lowry CA, et al., Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behaviour, Neuroscience (2007), doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.01.067
Wellbeing benefits from natural environments rich in wildlife, A literature review for The Wildlife Trusts, 2015. Dr Rachel Bragg, Dr Carly Wood, Dr Jo Barton and Professor Jules Pretty.
For example, Fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class of antidepressant – brand name, Prozac – causes anxiety in 1 in 100 patients; suicidal tendencies in 1 in 1000. Source: nhs.uk/medicine-guides.
Qualitative detection of the NSAIDs diclofenac and ibuprofen in the hair of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) occupying UK waterways with GC–MS. Richards, N.L., Cook, G., Simpson, V., Hall, S., Harrison, N., and Scott, K.S. (2011) Qualitative detection of the NSAIDs diclofenac and ibuprofen in the hair of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) occupying UK waterways with GC–MS. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 57(5), pp. 1107-1114.(doi:10.1007/s10344-011-0513-2)
Could Prozac be killing off our starlings? http://www.york.ac.uk/research/themes/prozac-and-starlings/
Arnold et al ,2015, University of York
The Living Soil’, Lady Eve B. Balfour, Faber & Faber, London, 1943. Full text available online via:http://www.soilandhealth.org