The 5th of December 2017 is World Soil Day. It’s a day to ‘celebrate the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system and as a vital contributor to human wellbeing’. The first World Soil Day was held in 2013 and every year there are a series of events held worldwide to celebrate.
As the world population continues to increase, more food needs to be grown on the same amount of land. This requires sustainable, efficient farming practices that can produce high yields while protecting vital resources – such as soil. Techniques which preserve the land in this way are commonly referred to as conservation agriculture.
It is estimated that 20% of Europe’s total land area is affected by water and wind erosion and once soil has been degraded, it can be very difficult to restore the quality. In particular, topsoil can be damaged or eroded very easily and it can take up to 500 years to form just two centimetres of topsoil.
To celebrate world soil day, we hear from farmers on how they rely on their soil and why they need the freedom to protect soil health on their farms. Soil management is the responsibility of farmers and they take it very seriously.
“Farmers are environmental professionals. It’s their life and their soil, so obviously they will work hard to preserve the land,” says French farmer, Jean-Christophe.
Mechanical tillage of soil, while an effective means of managing weeds, can damage soil structure and lead to erosion. To protect soil, many farmers have turned to using glyphosate, rather than ploughing, to control weeds.
“Ploughing is a weed control technique that turns over the soil, to a greater or lesser depth, and is something that has positive and negative aspects,” stresses Jean-Christophe. “In my opinion, ploughing on my farm can be useful, maybe once every three or four years. Between these periods, I can use glyphosate, which means I don’t have to plough. I try to strike a balance between using herbicides and mechanical work, which leads to soil erosion.”
Using a weed killer such as glyphosate allows farmers to adopt a minimal or no-till system which balances managing weeds with protecting soil quality.
“One of the key elements of our zero-tillage technique is glyphosate as this allows us to effectively control weeds without resorting to the plough,” says Italian wheat and sunflower farmer Gianpietro Gattari.
From increased earthworm numbers to better drainage, farmers see many improvements in soil quality as a result of adopting conservation agriculture methods.
“But even more crucially for me, the organic matter of the soil has improved very much due to the reduction in ploughing,” says British farmer James Cox.
At a time when soil is under more pressure than ever, it is important that farmers have access to the full agricultural toolkit that allows them to employ methods that are instrumental in protecting soil quality.
“Farming today isn’t about yield and a quick profit. I think of myself as a custodian of this land – I don’t own it but I look after it for future generations,” says James Cox. “I need this soil to provide a healthy crop this year, next year and in ten years hence. And future generations will depend on it for decades to come. I wouldn’t put anything on this land that I don’t trust 100%.”