The Journey to Inner Space

(C) Ursula Billington, Sustainable Soil Alliance

“In case we have not understood yet, it’s quite simple: everything is connected!”

So said Christiana Figueres - former UN Climate Change Executive and architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement - upon launch of the IPBES biodiversity report revealing 1 million species under threat globally, with serious implications for human life on earth. Indeed it can seem surprising, especially perhaps to those plugged in to the wonders of Avon’s wildlife, that it’s taken this long for the intrinsic interconnectedness of people, nature and climate to be widely understood and accepted.

However, even now when it seems the dawn is breaking on a new comprehension of nature’s value, a fundamental puzzle piece still so often remains overlooked – the bedrock and support for all terrestrial life: the soil.

Soil is the beating heart of life on earth, a vital element that supports the health of people, plants, wildlife, water and air. It processes waste, locks up carbon, provides medicines; supports biodiversity, produces food and manufactures the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin. Without healthy soils our natural environment and, by extension, life as we know it on this planet, would wither and collapse.

With this understanding and in response to the worrying plight of UK soils the Sustainable Soils Alliance was born. Soil in the UK is being lost at 10x the rate it is created – an incredible 1 football field every 5 seconds, or the weight of 240,000 double decker buses per year - due to intensive agriculture practices underpinned by limited awareness of sustainable land management and lacking government support for nature-friendly farming. Sustainable soils are essential for food production and have a vital role to play in climate change mitigation: storing 3x more carbon than found in the atmosphere, healthy soils are equipped to lessen the damaging effects to biodiversity and ecosystems that a warming planet threatens.

The SSA has been working with scientists, businesses, water companies, farmers and environmentalists to tackle the problem head on. We’ve engaged government in our campaign, lobbying for support for soils in the 25 Year Environment Plan, Environment and Agriculture Bills. Like the Wildlife Trusts, we want to see an Environment Bill with greater powers of enforcement and regulation to ensure sustainable soil management is taken as seriously as it deserves. We’re also calling for soil health to be enshrined in law as a ‘public good’ entitled to public funding; embedding soil health in supply chain policy; supporting land manager education; connecting tree, water and soil health, and so much more.

We’re lucky to be based in Avon, a region constantly buzzing with green activity. Community gardens and allotments reportedly attract up to 10x more pollinators and greater biodiversity than other, larger-scale land uses, and with a wealth of local growing and wellbeing projects we see positive environmental activity happening all around us. Feed Bristol, an AWT flagship project, is an exciting example of people working in harmony with land and nature, rooted in respect for the soil. Situated on Grade 1 agricultural land, part of the Blue Finger that historically formed Bristol’s market garden quarter, the project centres round good soil care for food production and habitats management because, as project lead Matt Cracknell says, “Soil is the cornerstone of increasing biodiversity on the farm. More soil life means a cascading effect on above-ground biodiversity – insects, mammals and birds. As a conservation charity we champion good soil management because it supports our whole ecosystem as well as addressing one of the biggest threats to biodiversity – climate change.”

People caring for gardens or land in all guises, shapes and sizes - take every opportunity to delve deep and get to know that all-important, unfamiliar ‘Inner Space’ below our feet that is brimming with life and life-supporting activity. It’s time for us to take care of our soil, so it can quietly continue to take care of all of us.

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