On Monday I was one of the guests at a reception at Westminster organised by the Sustainable Soils Alliance, an NGO working to raise awareness of the issue of soil degradation. There was a range of supporters who contributed to the speeches including environmental organisations (the Woodland Trust – their Chair Baroness Young is shown below addressing the audience – and the Soil Association) academia (Prof Chris Collins from the University of Reading, coordinator of the Soil Security Programme) and politicians including the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs The event was supported by private-sector organisations including Yeo Valley, Burges Salmon and Barclays, showing that the subject is recognised as being vitally important to the UK and beyond. The condition of agricultural land is not a good news story. A recent UN-backed report describes one-third of the world’s land as being severely degraded and an annual loss of 24bn tons of fertile soil. With seismic change in the wings for UK agriculture as Britain exits the CAP, the event was a timely reminder that the new system must recognise the condition of the land on which the food system depends.
I work with the IFSTAL programme (see www.ifstal.ac.uk) which brings together post-graduate students from a range of disciplines around agri-food to enhance the formal academic content of their studies. At an ‘away-day’ last November I set a challenge to a group of the students around how citizens could be encouraged to become more actively engaged with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I illustrated the challenge by reference to SDG 15.3; ”By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world” and asking how that could be made meaningful, for instance, to a plumber in Leicester?
The group concluded that the best way to engage people around the issues at that time was not to complicate matters by referring to the bigger-picture challenges wrapped up within the SDGs but, instead, to cut straight through to the heart of the matter. You can see below how they presented the challenge as a call to action in a similar way to the initiative launched at Westminster on Monday. In a further angle on the same topic, I was at a meeting today of the Agriculture Sector Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry, where soil science was a key focus. Maybe the time is right for soil to come back into the mainstream.