In praise of soils: World Soil Day

by | Dec 5, 2020

Happy World Soil Day! Our Conservation and Land Manager at Dartington Trust, Rafael Pompa has blogged with his thoughts on the importance of soil today (more on that below).

But first, a video message from Head Gardener at Schumacher College down in Henri’s Field:

On December 5, we celebrate World Soil Day with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations! So it seems like a good moment to pause and consider just how important soil is in all our lives. It might look like something that lays under our feet, that inert substance in the ground, just dirt, but soil is so much more than that.

Soils can be seen as whole ecosystems in themselves, with their own wildlife, their own dynamics and structure; the space where plant roots find nourishment and associate with networks of fungi, microbes, worms, insects, arthropods and mammals big and small.  It has been described as the ‘skin of the Earth’.

It is what sustains our forests, jungles, marsh; it is where our bricks and building materials come from and it is where we grow the food that we eat.

Soil is a complex structure that has taken thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, to form. This alone gives us an idea of how important soils are and the role that they play in our day to day lives.

I find it interesting that World Soil Day is celebrated at the end of the National Tree Week (here in the UK at least). It makes me think of the intricate relationship between soils and trees and the importance of this relationship in the context of one of the biggest issues of our generation; climate change.

Planting the right trees in the right place can be one of the most effective solutions to tackle climate change, as we are trying to show here on the estate with successful, practical experiments in agroforestry at Schumacher College and in Broadlears Field.

As opposed to humans, trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. This process helps trees to incorporate carbon into their tissues in the form of wood, roots and leaves. Once leaves fall and roots die carbon is released into the soil and this is where the next stage of the process begins. The carbon released by the trees is incorporated into the soil in its organic form, through decomposition, and if soil remains undisturbed, carbon can be captured for long periods of time. In this way, the partnership of tree and soil completes an important step in the global carbon cycle and mitigates climate change.

But why is this not done in a worldwide scale if it is known to be so beneficial?

There are several reasons but perhaps the most important one is that it is not always possible because there is simply not enough space to plant trees. There is not enough space, because so much of our available land in the UK and elsewhere is taken up with the arable and pasture fields of traditional agriculture.

However, in recent years, farmers, researchers and foresters have come together to explore ways to increase the amount of land covered by trees without compromising the amount of food produced.

Agroforestry, which is the deliberate integration of trees in farms, is a new name for an old practice that has proved to be an effective way to increase the production of food at the same time that mitigates the negative effects of climate change.

Dartington is a pioneer in exploring nature-based solutions, such as agroforestry, to capture carbon in soil while increasing the amount of food produced in a single piece of land.  We have at least seven types of agroforestry systems on the estate.

From areas combining arable crops with tree fruits to multi-strata edible forests, we are a national example on implementing a land management scheme that aims to solve some of the biggest challenges of our age.

If you are interested in finding out more about soil, head to this World Soil Day page on the FAO website, where you will find lots more information.