On 26 February 1937, the 32nd President of the USA, President Franklin D Roosevelt, wrote to all State Governors in the USA. In his letter, he made the case for effective soil management, including the powerful phrase:
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
His plea related directly to extreme climate events occurring in the USA at that period; it also demonstrated political leadership in soil management and conservation to address the risk of its wholesale decline and degradation.
Eighty four years have passed since then. However, as Joe Biden, the 47th President of the USA, visits Cornwall next month for the G7 meeting, he might note that soil degradation is a critical and growing global problem. An increasing world population has added to climate pressures on soil, and its natural capital faces continuing decline. Soil’s vital functions, and its vulnerability, are highlighted each year on World Soil Day, yet the conception of this event through the United Nations affirms that the torch of advocacy for soil health has passed from political leaders to non-governmental organisations.
The pressures on soil are clear, and predictions of a catastrophic collapse in the ability of topsoil to support food production have been put forward. However, their complexity and relatively low environmental priority create significant challenges to future management. It is claimed that the generation of 3cm of topsoil takes 1000 years; meanwhile, in 2016, soils accounted for 55% of landfilled waste in the UK.
Landfilling separates soil from its natural environment where, in addition to providing food security, it stores carbon, supports biodiverse habitats and acts as a critical natural defence against flooding. Furthermore, peat, one of the best long-term carbon stores, is harvested at an alarming scale to enrich compost sold for gardening. On that basis, can we realistically expect to maintain the soil resources needed to provide for a growing human population and sustain critical ecosystems?
Prioritising soil conservation to optimise its natural potential requires a step change in how we value this resource. The UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan aspires to the sustainable management of England’s soils by 2030, but the Waste Strategy for England ignores the loss of soils to landfills; the two issues are critically connected. Time is limited; we do not have the luxury of developing environmental stewardship strategies while waiting for soil to recover.