28th Aug 2023 -

As suppliers and consumers of soil, we understand its value in the ecosystem and the significant role it plays in agriculture. Yet, there is growing concern within the UK and globally that we are steadily running out of good-quality topsoil. In this guide, we'll delve into this pressing issue, its implications for our future, and how landscapers and businesses alike can contribute to the solution.

Digging Below the Surface to Understand Our Soil Problem

The process of soil degradation in the UK is a complex one. Intensive farming practices, including overgrazing and monoculture farming, have stripped our soil of nutrients and upset its delicate ecosystem. Heavy use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, while initially boosting yield, has over time disrupted the soil's natural ability to regenerate itself.

Urbanisation also plays a part. As we continue to expand our cities and build on greenfield land, we're not only losing our precious topsoil but also compacting it, making it less fertile and more susceptible to erosion. And we can't neglect the role of climate change. Increased temperatures and shifts in rainfall patterns can lead to drier soils, increasing the risk of erosion and reducing their ability to store carbon.

spraying pesticides

A Domino Effect

Soil degradation isn't just an isolated problem. Its repercussions extend far beyond the boundaries of our farms and gardens. Our soil is responsible for producing 95% of our food. Without healthy soil, our food production system is put at risk, leading to potential food insecurity.

The purpose of soil isn't limited solely to food production. It serves as a critical carbon sink, locking away carbon and thereby helping to regulate our climate. As our soils degrade, their capacity to store carbon diminishes, potentially exacerbating global warming.

Soils also play a crucial role in managing our water resources. They act like a sponge, absorbing rainwater and slowly releasing it, reducing the risk of flooding and ensuring a steady supply of water for our crops. Soil acts as a habitat for countless organisms, supporting a vast amount of our planet's biodiversity.

The loss of topsoil would mean more than just a decline in agricultural productivity. At worst, it could lead to a future marked by food insecurity, a decreased capacity to mitigate climate change, and the degradation of our ecosystems' health.

Disputing the Depth of the Crisis

As with any complex environmental issue, the extent and immediacy of the soil crisis are subjects of ongoing debate within the scientific community and broader agricultural sector. 

Several alarming headlines, primarily referencing a report from a United Nations representative, stated that given the ongoing soil degradation rates we could be left with merely 60 years of topsoil. This report has been the subject of fierce criticism in certain quarters.

The Optimists

On one end of the spectrum, some experts present a less alarmist perspective on the state of our soils. They argue that while soil degradation is undeniably a serious issue, the situation might not be as dire as often portrayed. 

They point towards the advancements in soil management techniques and innovative technologies that can significantly reduce soil loss and increase soil fertility. Practices like precision farming, biochar addition, and the use of cover crops are becoming more common, each with the potential to enhance soil health.

The Distribution Disputers 

Then there are those who propose an alternative viewpoint, suggesting that the crisis might not lie in the absolute amount of soil, but rather in its distribution. They argue that while some areas may be losing fertile soil at a concerning rate, others have an excess of underutilised fertile land. From this perspective, the challenge becomes one of optimising the use of available soil resources, rather than preventing an impending global soil shortage.

Finding Common Ground

Despite the differences in perspective, what remains undisputed across all viewpoints is the fact that the quality of our soil is diminishing. 

There's a universal consensus that if we do not address this decline in soil health, the potential consequences could be severe. So, while experts may debate the details, the overall narrative remains the same: our soils need attention, care, and conservation. 


Strategies to Extend Soil Lifespan

Soil degradation can be slowed through specific conservation strategies with demonstrable results. There are four key interventions to know about:

  • Land Use Transition: Transitioning from agricultural land to forest or grassland extends soil lifespans. However, due to increasing global food demands, this needs to be balanced with a need to protect arable soils, possibly by increasing crop yields.
  • Cover Cropping: Cover cropping during non-harvest seasons protects the soil from erosion and improves its quality. Leguminous cover crops, such as peas and beans, are especially effective.
  • Minimal or Zero Tillage: Reducing or eliminating mechanical soil tillage can preserve soil structure and decrease erosion rates. Combining this with cover cropping can help mitigate some of the associated trade-off like increased herbicide use.
  • Contour Cultivation or Terracing: Altering cultivation practices based on land gradient can reduce erosion. On steep slopes, terracing, despite reducing available land for crops, can provide benefits through reduced soil erosion and improved water and nutrient management.

While there's no universal solution, these strategies offer multiple opportunities to extend soil lifespans worldwide. Tailored and sustainable soil management practices are paramount for our soil's future.

While these strategies may significantly improve soil health and slow erosion rates, they form just one piece of the broader puzzle. The journey towards sustainable soil management doesn't end here. A workable long-term solutions will also need to address the issue at a more fundamental level.

Long-Term Solutions for Change

From financial incentives to drive sustainable farming practices, to research and technological innovation in soil science, numerous avenues exist to extend our soil's lifespan.

Government-Level Strategies

The future of British agriculture is inextricably tied to the health of our soils. At a government level, policy changes are a significant part of the equation.

  • Legislation Reflecting Soil Reality: This could involve more stringent regulations around land use to prevent over-farming and erosion. We could also consider introducing standards for soil quality, much like we have for air and water, which could encourage better management practices.
  • Financial Incentives for Sustainable Practices: Government subsidies could be geared more towards farmers who adopt soil-friendly farming techniques. This could include practices like crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduced tillage, all of which can help improve soil health and resilience.

Research and Development

Another critical area that could make a difference is research and development. By pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and innovating new strategies, research can offer groundbreaking solutions to preserve and rejuvenate our soils.

  • Investing in Soil Science: There's a need to research and test the best methods for improving soil health. This would involve substantial investment in soil science research and in training the next generation of soil scientists, who’ll be experimenting with different farming practices, studying the use of biochar or compost additions, or exploring the potential of emerging techniques such as microbial inoculation.
  • Technological Innovation: New technologies that make sustainable soil management easier and more efficient are crucial, such as precision agriculture technologies that enable farmers to apply fertilisers and water only where they're needed. Drones and satellite imaging can also be used to provide high-resolution data on soil health, helping farmers identify problem areas and take corrective action quickly.
  • AI Trend Analysis: Machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms can be used to analyse large amounts of soil data and make predictions about soil health, aiding in decision-making and planning.

Local-Level Solutions

Beyond these large-scale strategies, it's important to recognise that change can also happen at a more local level. Businesses and professionals such as landscapers and gardeners, have a crucial role to play in the fight against soil degradation.

  • Businesses Taking the Lead: In our industry, we can take the lead in sourcing and supplying soil that is not only rich in nutrients but also sustainably managed. By doing this, we can ensure that every bag of soil we sell contributes to, rather than detracts from, the overall health of the UK's soils.
  • Professionals as Soil Advocates: Similarly, landscapers and other professionals can be advocates for soil health in their work. By implementing soil-friendly practices, they can show their clients the value of healthy soils and demonstrate that good soil management doesn't have to come at the expense of a beautiful garden or landscape.

While the challenge of soil degradation is complex, the path towards healthier soils is clear. It involves cooperation from multiple stakeholders, a commitment to sustainable practices, and a recognition of the critical role soil plays in our lives and our future. With these viable solutions, we can adapt to a more sustainable future for British agriculture.

What Can You Do Now?

compost bin

If you're a professional in the landscaping sector or involved in purchasing soil, it's crucial to consider not only its physical properties but also its biological health. Here's how you can contribute to creating healthier soils today.

Select Vibrant and Healthy Soils

Ensure that the soil you use is rich in organic matter and teeming with beneficial microorganisms. Such soils are more resilient, and can contribute to improving the wider health of the soil ecosystem when you use them within a project.

Use of Compost as a Natural Boost for Soil Health

Compost works wonders for soil structure, stimulates the growth of beneficial microbes, and reintroduces essential nutrients back into the soil. Making compost a regular part of your soil mix, or advocating for its use to your clients, is an important step.

Minimising Soil Disturbance

Excessive tilling and overturning of soil can disrupt its structure and expedite the process of erosion. Whenever feasible, choose methods that minimise soil disturbance, maintaining its natural composition and layers.

Encouraging Diverse Plantings

A diverse range of plants can contribute to soil health in many ways, enriching it with a variety of nutrients and promoting a balance of soil organisms. Encouraging your clients to consider diverse plantings can bolster soil resilience and ensure its ongoing vitality.

Advocacy for Sustainable Practices

Educating your clients about the importance of soil health and sustainable gardening practices is another potent tool. This could encompass a broad range of topics, from using organic fertilisers to implementing watering techniques that prevent erosion. You can empower them with the skills and knowledge they need to maintain a healthy garden environment.

Sow the Seeds of Change Today

man with soil

We each have a role to play in preserving our invaluable soil resources. It's a complex challenge we face, but by working together and making a concerted effort, we can ensure the future of British agriculture remains as fertile as the very soil it depends on.

Buying the right soil is about more than fulfilling a need for a project; it's a commitment to the environment and our shared future.

Looking For Quality Gardening Soil?

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