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Soil Health: What is it and what does it mean for sustainable fashion?

Soil Health: What is it and what does it mean for sustainable fashion?

Earth's soil, often referred to as the planet's lifeblood, is the foundation upon which our food security, ecosystems, and even climate stability depend. Yet, soil health remains an underappreciated and frequently overlooked aspect of our environment. In this article, we delve into the critical importance of soil health, exploring its role in sustaining life and the various factors that threaten its well-being.

Beneath our feet lies a vast and intricate ecosystem teeming with life. Healthy soil is not just dirt; it is a dynamic living system composed of microorganisms, fungi, earthworms, and countless other organisms. These creatures work in harmony to decompose organic matter, cycle nutrients, and aerate the soil, creating an environment where plants can thrive.

In the face of an urgent climate crisis, in this article we remind ourselves of a groundbreaking report released in April 2022 suggesting that embracing regenerative agriculture may hold the key to averting environmental catastrophe. With the UN 's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issuing dire warnings about the need for rapid carbon emissions reduction, the potential of regenerative agriculture is gaining recognition as a powerful solution.

" Regenerative Agriculture in Europe " authored by leading scientists, including Professor Thomas Elmqvist of Stockholm University, and supported by Europe's National Academies of Sciences, such as the UK's Royal Society, sheds light on the largely unexplored concept of regenerative agriculture. This approach emphasizes two critical components: soil health restoration and biodiversity conservation. These factors offer promising solutions to the detrimental impacts of conventional agriculture, such as soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture is a leading driver of deforestation and land-use changes globally, contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe, CO2 emissions are primarily linked to land conversion and peat soil use, while other potent greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane, are released from soils, fertilizers, and livestock. Climate change is already affecting agriculture, causing shifts in temperature, rainfall patterns, and the health of critical soil organisms. Predictions indicate that crop yields in the UK could decrease by 15% to 30% by the 2080s, further stressing the need for sustainable farming practices. The dual role of healthy soils in food production and carbon sequestration makes soil health a linchpin in the fight against climate change.

Soil as a Carbon Sink:

One of the most significant yet often underestimated functions of soil is its role as a carbon sink. Globally soil stores over 4000 billion tonnes of carbon, helping mitigate climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To put this in to perspective, the forests store 360 billion tonnes of carbon as biomass, and the atmosphere more than 800 billion tonnes in carbon dioxide. However, when soil health is compromised, it releases carbon back into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

Despite its crucial importance, soil health is facing a multitude of threats. Intensive agriculture practices, such as monocropping and excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, have degraded soils across the planet. Additionally soil erosion, caused by deforestation and poor land management, is causing the loss of fertile topsoil at an alarming rate. An estimated 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil are lost due to erosion.

A Path Forward: Regenerative Agriculture

Restoring soil health is at the core of regenerative agriculture's potential. The report suggests that by rejuvenating 15% of priority lands through regenerative practices, we could potentially sequester a staggering 299 gigatons of CO2. This equates to 30% of the total carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Such efforts simultaneously combat the alarming rate of species extinction, highlighting the interconnectedness of biodiversity and carbon storage.

Unlike strictly defined agricultural approaches like organic farming, regenerative agriculture is a more flexible and inclusive concept. It does not exclude modern technologies, fertilizers, or pesticides but instead focuses on achieving specific goals: enhancing biodiversity, increasing carbon capture, and maintaining agricultural productivity. This adaptability allows for a more tailored approach to land management.

While regenerative agriculture shows great promise, scaling up these practices remains a challenge. Many believe it can only be applied on a small scale, but the report argues that industrial farmers must adopt these methods for meaningful change. A landscape-level perspective is essential to achieve the ambitious goals set by regenerative agriculture. Several practices highlighted in the report demonstrate the synergy between carbon capture, biodiversity enhancement, and sustainable food production. These practices include crop diversification, agroforestry, intercropping, year-round green cover, and reduced tillage.

Despite the challenges, regenerative agriculture offers a beacon of hope. It presents a comprehensive solution to address climate change, preserve biodiversity, and secure food production for a growing global population. By harnessing the vast potential of soil health restoration and biodiversity conservation, regenerative agriculture holds the promise of a sustainable future in the face of the climate crisis.

As Orsolya Valkó of Hungary's Institute of Ecology and Botany aptly puts it, we are standing on the planet's most potent carbon capture and storage system. To safeguard ecological diversity, food security, and combat climate resilience simultaneously, there is no alternative to embracing regenerative agriculture. By adopting sustainable agricultural practices, reforestation efforts, and embracing a holistic approach to land management, we can ensure that Earth's lifeblood remains vibrant and capable of sustaining future generations. With a decade or less to make a massive transformation, the time for action is now.

"Buy less. Choose well. Make it last."

Vivienne Westwood

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