Soil management – what can be done to secure a sustainable food supply chain?

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Soil is the foundation for all plant growth. Its degradation leads to a loss of fertile land for food production, increased pollution and flooding, and consequent social and environmental impacts. Globally soil health is a critical issue, with FAO estimating that globally over 2 Mha of arable and grazing land are affected by moderate to severe soil degradation mainly as a result of over-grazing, deforestation and mismanagement of arable land. In the UK it is estimated that 2.9 M tonnes of soil is eroded each year and soil quality diminished by poor practices. In this article we look more closely at the UK situation and argue why the food industry should care about soils, and what actions can be taken.

Soil management – what can be done to secure a sustainable food supply chain?

 “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself” Franklin D. Roosevelt (1937)

What’s the issue?

Soil is the foundation of all land based ecosystems and provides multiple ecosystem services, most notably provision of food and fibre, carbon storage, regulation of water flow and quality and the support of both above and below ground biodiversity. However, the ability of soils to deliver these services is threatened by a number of degradation processes such as erosion, compaction, loss of organic matter and acidification, which can be accelerated by intensive agricultural practices.

In 2011, it was estimated that 2.9 million tonnes of soil are eroded each year in the UK. Approximately 17% of arable soils show signs of erosion, with 40% of arable soils considered to be at riski.

However, this is not an easy problem to solve - especially as 2.5 cm of topsoil takes approximately 500 years to formii. With pressure on agriculture to deliver food to a growing population, protecting our soil resources is absolutely fundamental to ensure long term security of supply of raw materials, and should feature on the agenda of any responsible food business.

What is being done to address the issue?

The importance of good soil management is gaining increasing recognition amongst businesses in the food and farming supply chain, including retailers. Farmers frequently call for more research and advice on practical and economic actions that can be taken to manage soils.  Sainsbury’s has funded a number of research projects focussing on plant and soil health in the last 3 years, and in 2015 soil health and management was the theme of its Farming Scholarship Programme. ASDA has commissioned a booklet in conjunction with LEAF to help their farmers improve soil health and many other businesses make reference to protecting soil resources in their CSR material. Whilst these moves are extremely positive, what is less clear is evidence of improvements on the ground. There are no shortcuts, and programmes must be specific to the local context taking into account the current ‘health’ of the soil, climate, cropping and local environment. Taking action on soil health is unlikely to produce short term results, and can be difficult to measure. All this makes it easy to see why action on soil is left in the shadow of issues with greater public awareness such as water use and reductions in GHG emissions.

What can the food industry do to address soil health?

Improving soil management is a ‘win win’ situation for all those in the food and farming supply chain over the long term, increasing the performance of soil to produce higher yields that are more resilient to physical shocks such as flooding, water-logging and wind, and effects of climate change. UK farmers are keen to address the issue, recognising the value of soil to their business but they don’t always know the best actions to take to help achieve improvements in soil health.  The value of improved soil management also flows through the supply chain with greater security of supply.

Before any actions can be taken it is important to understand and prioritise the soil risks in the supply chain. These will vary for every business depending on the raw materials and source, but this will help pinpoint critical issues that might affect supply or reputation.

Where priorities are identified there are a range of supplier engagement activities that can support soil health and deliver real benefits along the supply chain. Examples include:

  • Support soil research and knowledge exchange
  • Develop innovative schemes to showcase ideal practice – there are some good examples in the water sector showing how recognising the benefits along the supply chain and collaborative working can deliver real improvements.
  • Advice, training and tools for farmers to raise issue and identify practical actions

How can ADAS help?

ADAS provides science-based research and strategic consultancy from a team of professionally qualified soil scientists, modellers, agricultural production specialists and agri-food supply chain consultants. We have a wealth of practical experience to deliver cost-effective and practical management solutions in food supply chains that really make a difference. We can provide:

  • Strategic guidance on improving soil management in agricultural supply chains, including determining areas of highest risk
  • Creation of measures such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) to incentivise improvement in the supply chain
  • Training to producer groups and farmers on improving their soil management, including soil assessments
  • Development of digital management tools to help farmers improve soil health

For more information please contact Sarah Wynn on 01954 268249 or email Sarah here.  

i Cost of Soil Degradation in England and Wales, DEFRA project CTE0946


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