The Week in Soil

Is Brexit bad for the environment? An ex-government adviser suggests environmental policy is being badly impacted as nearly 3000 staff are deployed from Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England to work on delivering the UK’s exit from the EU.

In a world first, a farmer has been awarded carbon credits by the Australian Government’s Emissions Reductions Fund for improving his soil. After enrolling in soil chemistry courses and studying farming practices from round the world, Mr Olsen invented a piece of machinery that combines cultivation, mulching, aeration and mixed species seeding to improve soil’s fertility and carbon levels. Once he has earned enough carbon credits he will be able to sell them to the highest bidder on the free market.  

New research shows that long-term organically-farmed soils emit 40% less greenhouse gas/hectare than conventionally-farmed soils. The results of a long term field experiment were recently published in the online edition of the scientific journal Scientific Reports.

In a policy void, scientists are scrambling to save dying soils. Politico EU report on ‘Europe’s forgotten environmental crisis’. Their introduction sums up the nature and scale of the problem:

“Chemical spills, industrialized farming, urban sprawl and erosion are gnawing away on one of the world’s most relied-upon natural resources. It’s a problem that some soil scientists liken to climate change: glacial, inexorable, potentially disastrous if it’s left unaddressed.”

The series includes this useful resource of Europe’s soil hotspots & degraded land represented in graphs and charts.

And in a special focus on Spain, they reveal that if climate change models are correct most of the country’s fertile land is in danger of transforming in to desert: according to a special report published by the European Court of Auditors in December 2018, 3/4 of Spain faces desertification, making it one of the most seriously affected countries in Europe.

Microplastic pollution has been found to have infiltrated environments and landscapes globally, according to new studies showing contamination in lakes and rivers in the UK, groundwater in the US, the Yangtze river in China and the coast of Spain. The new analysis found microplastics in all 10 lakes, rivers and reservoirs sampled in the UK, including 1000+ pieces/litre in Manchester’s River Tame which was last year revealed as the most contaminated place yet tested worldwide. Humans are known to consume the tiny plastic particles via food and water, but the possible health effects on people and ecosystems have yet to be determined.

A new Chicago Council on Global Affairs report 'From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future' references the many facets of soil's vital role in global food and water security including improving agricultural productivity, green water retention, providing a carbon sink, fighting desertification, supporting local ecology and much more.

An international group of campaigners have called for a ‘natural climate solutions’ approach to current environmental problems, uniting solutions to ecological and climate destruction that will also serve people and society. They suggest the restoration of natural forests and coasts can simultaneously tackle climate change and the annihilation of wildlife but is being worryingly overlooked. Signatories to the letter in the Guardian which was instigated by George Monbiot include Greta Thunberg, the climate scientist Prof Michael Mann, writers Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Philip Pullman, campaigners Bill McKibben and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the musician Brian Eno. The group emphasises that natural climate solutions are not an alternative to the rapid decarbonisation of energy, transport and farming. Both are needed, the campaigners say.

Soil experts, academics and scientific studies are establishing clear links between the use of substances such as glyphosate with drops in soil fertility and the collapse of microbe ecosystems essential to healthy soil. Farmers suggest use of the pesticides could impact significantly on global food security.

Damage from wildfires can result in an increased risk of flooding and landslides. Authorities in British Columbia are asking for the public’s help in establishing to what degree recent wildfires in the province have impacted on soils, by encouraging the reporting of any erosion concerns of potential flooding risks.

New findings published in the Journal for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicate changes in soil biodiversity are driven by changes in plant cover and soil acidification during ecosystem development. The study provides critical insights in to the factors that control changes in the biodiversity of soil bacteria, fungi, protists, and invertebrates over many millennia.

The International Soil Modeling Consortium held its second biannual conference at Wageningen University & Research in November last year, aiming to integrate and advance soil systems modelling, data gathering, and observational capabilities. Read the recently published report on the event.

And finally…. A group of Belgian designers has taken soil as the inspiration for their latest installation. The Brut Collective have produced ‘Bodem’ (Dutch for soil), a sensory collection of pieces specifically inspired by the treasure-rich soil of Tongeren, the location of Belgium’s oldest Gallo-Roman settlement. They were ‘drawn to the layered characteristics of soil’ and other related effects such as rainfall and the wind’s movement on the earth.