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Soil: Private Asset or Public Good?

Dr. Anna Krzywoszynska is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield: an interdisciplinary social scientist, she uses qualitative research methods to understand the relationships between humans and nature, and the role scientific and other forms of knowledge play in these relationships.

The critical tension between a farmer’s environmental responsibility and need for productivity was laid bare at Groundswell’s recent event on soil regeneration in the farming context. The concept of soil health may a way to bridge this tension – but only if we acknowledge that that tension exists.

Speaking at one of the Groundswell’s panels on the topic of farmer-led soil enhancement, David Walston, an arable farmer who researched soil health through his Nuffield Scholars project, challenged the usefulness of the ‘soil health’ concept for the farming community. Stressing the economic imperative of farming, he argued that the focus on soil health should be replaced by a focus on soil’s base fertility, and that more attention should be devoted to the relationship between soil quality and yield instead of pursuing the ‘woolly’ concept of soil health.

Ultimately, David argued, the key soil health indicator is how much money you get out of your soil.

This position was opposed by other panellists, including Tony Reynolds, a no-till farmer, and Joel Williams, a soil health educator, and by other voices from the floor. They stressed the broader nature of soil health, most often understood through soil’s contribution to a number of ecosystem functions. Plant productivity, they argued, was only one of the functions of a ‘healthy’ soil alongside for example water management, air purification, and carbon capture.

Limiting the assessment to yield only, they argued, is inappropriate and short-sighted.

I was sorry to hear David’s voice silenced so quickly. He expressed a tension between soil as simultaneously a private and a public good which will be close to the hearts of many farmers, especially with the growing awareness of soil’s importance in farming – potentially central to a future agrienvironmental policy. On the one hand, farmers sometimes describe soil as their ‘factory floor’, their ‘key asset’, and their private concern. On the other, soil is a vital factor in the bio-geo-chemical cycles which maintain life on the planet, and through these to the provision of for example drinking water and breathable air, making it a public good, and so a public concern.

Some argue that there should be no tension between treating soil as both a private asset and a public good because healthy soils are a foundation of farming. Surely, it is in farmers’ best interest to look after the health of their soils? While true, this statement is also simplistic. By putting the whole weight of achieving soil health on the shoulders of the individual farmer, it overlooks the systemic nature of decisions which surround land management. Farmers do not operate in a vacuum – their decisions around land use are influenced by multiple factors, including their land ownership or tenancy situation, the requirements of their crops, the demands exercised by other agents in the supply chain (e.g. processors or retailers who buy their produce), their access to training and knowledge as well as the perceptions of what constitutes good land management in the wider farming community.

In a nutshell – in order for a farmer to decide to pursue soil health on their fields, and to pursue this direction, many elements have to come into place.

Deciding to farm as if soil health mattered is not straight-forward, therefore. It requires a whole-system change, and - since each agro-ecological context, soil type, and farming system is unique - without the help of a blue-print. Farms which pursue soil health are, very simply, different farms to “conventional” ones. They use different machinery, they have different rotations, different financial flows, and demand different expertise and skill. The change is total and may result in a significant amount of short-term pain – both financial (e.g. machinery investment) and emotional (the stress of learning to manage a new system) to achieve long-term gain. Not everyone is in a position to act on promises when the potential outcomes are both uncertain and a long way off.

Saying that soil health should be a priority for the farming community because it is in the farmers’ longterm interests - and then expecting all farmers’ to change their behaviour overnight - is both unhelpful and unrealistic. It profoundly misunderstands how human beings make decisions, and what affects these. We all know it is in our long-term interest to stop driving cars, not drink alcohol, and take thirty minutes of exercise every day - and yet we need to get our kids to football practice somehow, all our mates seem to meet at the pub, and we struggle to find the time and energy to go for a jog every day – to give some examples. We all have good reasons why we do things which may be bad for us in the long term.

The same thing applies to soil health. Having healthy, functioning soils is indeed fundamental to humanity’s long term survival, but making soil health part of everyday life – at the farm level, but also throughout the agri-food systems, from farm to fork – is a bigger project, and one which has to be developed collaboratively, sensitively, and constructively. Most importantly, it has to be developed together.

Just saying that soil health is important, and legislating to enforce it by focusing on a limited set of variables or practices, will not work. Soil health is an outcome of many processes, and achieving it requires a range of behaviours - from buying new machinery, to learning new knowledge and skills, and even having the strength to stand up to the neighbours judging your ‘messy’ field from across the hedge.

To get to soil health every farm and every farmer needs to carve out a path for themselves. Any policy or movement which seeks to make soil health a part of farming needs to acknowledge this, and support the farming community in making soil health meaningful on each farm, in each business plan. Soil health is not a destination – it is a journey.

Would we have a better, healthier, more sustainable agri-food system is it were underpinned by soil health? Of course we would. But it would also be a different agri-food system. So for soil health to become a reality, we need change at all levels. From everyone, not just the farmers. It is through this system-wide change that the tension between the soils’ productive function and its environmental functions will start to disappear, and it will indeed ‘make sense’ to farm with soil health in mind.

Above all, I am wary of simplification, and I believe David and those who think like him need to be listened to and their position acknowledged if the we are to find ways of making soil health part of normal farming practice.

The flipside of pushing for soil health without recognising the complexity of the issue will be an inevitable backlash from farmers who struggle to see the relevance of soil health to their farming operations, resent the interference, and as a result dismiss it as yet another attempt to discredit farming in favour of ‘environmentalism’.

This is where the work of the Sustainable Soils Alliance is so important. By seeking to build a common mission around soil health, SSA are enabling dialogue between different stakeholders in the farming community to ensure that all voices are heard and all opinions respected. This is no easy task, but an absolutely crucial one if soil health is to become a meaningful, valued, and valuable element of a sustainable agri-food system.

Following Groundswell, 3 July 2018