Just when you thought climate alarmism had passed its peak…
We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it
War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve
Monbiot’s tendency towards biblical levels of alarmism is on the record, of course. But this is new.
Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.
Our fate is being sealed, says the Graun’s miserablist-in-chief, by our mistreatment of mud — the stuff our crops depend on, and therefore we all depend on.
To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
Those wise men of nearly 4,000 years ago new something today’s seemingly chemical-happy farmers don’t…
The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.
An orgy of soil destruction? Only 60 – 100 years of food left?
Soils have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, biodiversity and life. We must invert this tendency and take up some preserving and restoring actions. The World Soil Day campaign aims to connect people with soils and raise awareness on their critical importance in our lives.
But we should take such claims with a pinch of salt. Global bureaucracies, like disoriented Guardian hacks, need a scare story to elevate and legitimise themselves. FAO claims that a third of all agricultural soil in the world is ‘degraded’. But the website itself offers little guidance on what this measure actually means — if it means anything at all. Even searching Google for the terms “third of soil degraded” yields many results, but which refer only to FAO web pages and the headlines they have generated, and other organisations which seem equally keen to make this ambiguous metric the basis for new forms of governance.
The UK would serve as a good test of these claims. It is an advanced economy. It is relatively densely populated. It has strong regulatory frameworks, making it difficult to change the use of land and to use it in ways not approved by the state (or EU). The FAO’s own statistical database tells a different story to the one it tries to make…
In the case of each food crop, the yield per Ha has increased over the years. It is true that the area being farmed has diminished, but that is explained in fact by EU rules requiring set-aside for ecological reasons and to reduce the productivity of European farms, to avoid the vast surpluses that were created in the days of the EEC.
This increasing yield does not show us a picture of declining soil quality. Yet Monbiot assures us…
To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.
Yet no such encroachment into nature has taken place in the UK. If anything, it is the green, protected areas of Britain’s landscapes which have grown into the land previously used by people.
But an even odder story emerges…
Shortly after I had tweeted the link to Monbiot’s article, Barry Woods got in touch to say he couldn’t work out what the basis for another of Monbiot’s claims was. Monbiot said,
Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.
This is small-is-beautiful mythology. The fanciful idea haunting Monbiot is that, if only we would all become smallholders, we would all live a more bountiful, wonderful world of endless leisure. Can it really be true that allotments are between 4 and 11 times as productive as industrial farming? It seems far fetched indeed. (For readers outside the UK, an allotment is a small area of land owned by local authorities, which is rented out in small parcels at very low cost to local residents.)
The link seemingly supporting George’s claim was to this article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which claims that ‘Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture’. As we might expect, it is highly sceptical of ‘modern agriculture’, which the authors believe
… in seeking to maximize yields to meet growing global food demand, has caused loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) and compaction, impairing critical regulating and supporting ecosystem services upon which humans also depend.
And like Monbiot, they want us to be smallholders.
Own-growing makes an important contribution to food security in urban areas globally, but its effects on soil qualities that underpin ecosystem service provision are currently unknown.
Here is the passage which Monbiot borrows his claim from:
Comparison of Allotment and Agricultural Soils
The remarkable contrast in soil quality indicators (higher SOC, C : N, TN and lower BD) between allotments and arable fields reveals the effectiveness of management achieved by own-growers. Furthermore, it demonstrates the extent to which modern agricultural practices have degraded soil natural capital – which has profound implications for the loss of ecosystem service provision (Loveland & Webb 2003; Lal 2004), including reduced structural stability, water and nutrient holding capacity and impaired regulation of N mineralization and supply to plants (Quinton et al. 2010; Dungait et al. 2012). In terms of provisioning ecosystem services by own-growing in allotments, both the historical records of production during the world wars and more recent UK trials conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society and ‘Which?’ Magazine showed fruit and vegetable yields of 31–40 t ha−1 year−1 (Tomkins 2006), 4–11 times the productivity of the major agricultural crops in the Leicestershire region (DEFRA 2013). Importantly, depletion of SOC in conventional agricultural fields is now thought to be an important factor constraining productivity as many arable soils have suboptimal concentrations (Lal 2010).
This is like Chinese Whispers — a tendency of claims made by environmentalists is that the truth or significance of research is obscured by successive citations through the literature. Sure enough, rather than leading to any research which discovers that “allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers”, two studies produced figures which vary by between 4 and 11 times, allegedly. This is not a safe assumption — it does not compare like with like. It’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It is like comparing apples with paint.
The two, very different studies are the Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, Agriculture in the English Regions 2012, 2nd Estimate and Tomkins, M. The Edible Urban Landscape: an assessment method for retro-fitting urban agriculture into an inner London test site. The latter is the author’s MSc Thesis completed at the University of East London, London, UK.
It is not clear how these two figures are achieved, prior to their comparison. The Defra report makes no mention of agricultural productivity in Leicestershire. Tomkins does, however, does offer us figures on page 44:
We can start to work out the yields of the allotment system by referring to experiments conducted in the 1970s by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) (Personal communication, appendix 2), and Which?Magazine (February 1975, Handyman special insert, p. 21).
According to a document entitled ‘Your garden plot – what is its value to you?’ (see appendix 2)
“During 1975 the Royal Horticultural Society maintained a 30 feet by 100 feet vegetable plot at Harlow Carr, with the aim of showing how vegetables for a family of 4 could be provided. The 3 year crop rotation was adopted and most of the work on the plot was carried out by the garden apprentice. Approximately 180 hours work went into the feature.”
But there are two important caveats here. Tomkins admits:
The first sowings were made on 9th March in the cold frame with the total volume of produce recorded until 22 November of the same year. The report states that at the end of the trial, there were “still plenty of winter crops, leeks, onions cabbage, kale, parsnips, broccoli and brussel sprouts…on the plot.”
The total of the produce is 876.1kg for 259 days of the growing season. This would be equal to 31.28 tonnes per hectare. The report, while stating the amount of labour required, does not give an indication of whether fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides were used in the experiment, although the NSALG “believe it was used in a similar manner to normal allotment gardening”.
First caveat… 180 hours of labour is equivalent to 22 days of work — nearly 10 per cent of a working year. And that much to allegedly feed a family.
Second caveat… The use of fertilizer and pesticide is not ruled out. My own (second-hand, anecdotal) understanding of allotment husbandry in the postwar period is that that generation of self-sufficiency enthusiasts adored chemicals.
We might also note that the Defra report covers the year 2012, whereas the Which?/RHS study is nearly forty years old. (Which? is a UK consumer affairs magazine, and the Royal Horticultural Society is an organisation for people with green fingers – hardly scientific research institutions).
Furthermore, although it would be impressive to see an allotment produce 876kg of food, even at 31.28 tonnes per hectare, given the average yields for UK production in the FAO database are 20 tonnes for vegetables, 13 tonnes for fruit, 40 tonnes for roots & tubers, the allotment holder seems not to compete with his industrial farming counterpart on productivity or cost. If farmers were only able to produce sufficient crops for 22 families per worker, they would likely go out of business. The small selection of crops produced in the RHS/Which? study would require 728,000 famers — before we’ve even thought about cereal, bread, dairy and meat production, whereas there are just half a million farm workers in the UK.
Monbiot loves to emphasise the importance of citing ones sources, and of making sure that such sources are trustworthy. But he does very little to investigate much beyond the superficial figures that such sources seem to produce. He takes for granted that what the FAO claim is the case. And he didn’t look too deeply into the claim in the J. of Applied Ecology, which mashed together non-existent figures from Defra, and a 1975 consumer magazine’s experiment with fertilizer retold through an inexpert, and highly political masters thesis.
The object lesson for Monbiot, then, is to understand the scientific claims he reproduces, not just parrot them before jumping to claims such as this:
This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.
One cannot take FAO campaigning at face value. Nor can we say that the Journal of Applied Ecology or Masters students at the University of East London (currently ranked 122nd out of 123 UK universities) have unburdened themselves of political motivations. As much as ecologists like to claim that their studies are science, ecology is also a normative science and a political movement. Students and researchers, too, have political motivations. It is not as easy to separate politics from science as Monbiot seems to imagine.
But a little research — an hour’s worth of investigation — puts statistical claims into perspective. The world is not running out of soil, and living out of allotments will not save us from non-doom. Unfortunately for Monbiot, though, looking more deeply at the organisations and science he trusts, and which he takes at face value, would deprive him of the alarming headlines that are his stock-in-trade.