WITH soil health moving fast up the agenda on many farms, there's a call for farmers and land managers to participate in a new soil management practices project. Here, in a special blog, by Anna Krzywoszynska, we feature why this is so important:

Cast your mind back to a warm summer day, a time when shortly after it has rained, you are in the garden or your field and the aroma of soil is wafting on the air.

That deep warming aroma is called ‘petrichor’, and what you are actually smelling is a compound called geosmin, which is produced by soil bacteria specifically associated with healthy soils.

We humans are extremely sensitive to the scent of geosmin. Not only are we able to detect it in parts per billion, but it actually has an impact on our physical state, lowering heart rate and decreasing cortisol levels – in other words, smelling good soil makes us feel relaxed and happy.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Soils are so critical to the human species, that smelling healthy soil relaxes us!

Soil is so much more than the medium in which, or through which, our food is produced. Its health and sustainability, underpins all processes which make the dry surface of our planet habitable for humans and other forms of life.

Soil degradation can, therefore, be literally a life-and-death question. Worryingly, current rates of soil erosion could lead to a complete loss of topsoil within 140 years, undermining food and environmental security globally.

This soil crisis is now being recognised by international scientific and policy bodies as being just as important as climate change. Indeed, these two are strongly connected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019) highlighted that already more than a quarter of land globally is suffering degradation as a result of human activity.

Fields are losing soil at a rate of up to 100 times faster than the rate of soil formation and desertification is growing year on year. Temperature increases and heavy rains associated with climate breakdown, are further degrading already damaged soils.

All this is already now causing food insecurity and unless action is taken the impacts will only get worse. This soil degradation problem is not just happening elsewhere, but is very much a live issue in the UK.

On the national level, soil degradation already costs the UK economy a staggering £1.2bn annually. Because the UK’s soils are quite resilient, much of their degradation remains unseen, although the effects of this degradation can be seen in events such as increases in flooding.

Sustainable soil management is the kind of innovation that is required to get us out of this. Addressing soil degradation and improving soil health is all about local learning.

Conventional farming has come to depend increasingly on a small set of universally used chemical and mechanical solutions. Sustainable soil management does not have ‘a blueprint’ – the solutions do not come in a can, or with a table.

That means that what works for soils has to be locally innovated and re-learnt in each place.

The project is to ensure sustainable soil management is becoming an urgent priority across society, throughout UK farming and land management, policy, research and academia. Certainly, the foundational role of soils has been acknowledged by the UK government in Defra’s 2018 'A Green Future: Our 25-year plan to improve the environment', which has set an objective for all soils in the UK to be managed sustainably by 2030.

But sustainable soil management depends on both the availability of appropriate knowledge and data as well as the adoption of fitting practices by land managers.

However, there is a lack soil health data and of evidence regarding current sustainable soil management behaviours and practices amongst UK farmers. While collecting more data on soils themselves is important, as it is the practices and action of land managers that can directly determine the status of soil and its’ health, we need to also understand soil health awareness and support across the UK land management sectors.

To do this, we are conducting a nationwide survey of soil management practices. The information will help researchers and policymakers understand how policy mechanisms could support farmers and their innovation networks to further spread sustainable soil management practice.

The first part of the project is a nationwide survey of farmers and land managers (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/sustainablesoil) participation in which could bag you a £500 cash prize, well worth the 15 minutes to complete!

Not only are we wanting as many farmers and land managers as possible from all sectors across the UK to complete our short survey (which closes on March 16), but we want to hear from you if you know of farmer/land manager groups that support sustainable soil management practices.

Much of the excellent work done on adopting sustainable soil management is done by farmer-driven networks, who are efficient and powerful innovation drivers; and we are striving to produce a map of sustainable land management networks, groups, demonstration sites and so on.

So, we are really keen to discover as many of these networks as possible and to talk to their organisers.

* If you want to find out more about the project, get in touch with: samantha.outhwaite@adas.co.uk or A.Krzywoszynska@Sheffield.ac.uk

About the authors:

Dr Anna Krzywoszynska is a Faculty of Social Sciences Research Fellow. She is also an associate director at the University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food.

For the last few years Anna has been exploring the re-conceptualisation of soils as lively ecosystems in conventional agricultural practice and its related knowledge fields and the consequences of this for the future of agriculture and land use.

Dr Samantha Outhwaite is a qualitative social scientist at the University of Sheffield specialising in food and agricultural related research. Her research focuses on agri-food networks, environmental land and farm management knowledge-practices and relationships.