“A visually arresting and highly informative film to learn about one of the most important aspects of a healthy society; soil”
The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground we walk on. The foundation of each of these fundamental human processes is contained in soil. Those of us who think of it as just ‘dirt’ have little idea of the vast world and essential processes hidden beneath the surface.
Despite not receiving the attention it deserves, soil health is fundamental to the way we live. Without it, we face the breakdown of food and textile production, poor water and air quality, ecosystem collapse and unchecked levels of carbon rising into the atmosphere. An agricultural revolution is needed to change the way we treat soil and provide the conditions they need to regenerate and thrive.
We spoke to Ruby and Craig, from Regeneplate, from Ballyconnelly farm about their journey to incorporate sustainable agriculture methods and how we can encourage more farmers to start using sustainable techniques to regenerate soil health. The challenge of switching from conventional agricultural methods to regenerative agriculture can seem like a daunting one but it is also an exciting opportunity to learn about your land and reconnect with nature.
Q: what tips do you have for farmers who are looking to transition to sustainable agriculture methods?
“[Regenerative agriculture] is such a large field and a lot of people out of no fault of their own have very little knowledge about it. The first step would be just to get familiar with the understanding of the foundations of the biological world that underpins all of this and forms the cycles which keep everything in check.
I think farmers are very stoic and confident people. It would be useful if farmers could view their own agricultural operation as part of the whole interconnected system and not just a separate entity. Another thing is looking at the baseline kind of ecosystem services that are on your farm, surveying those and understanding what kind of life your farm supports and potential for what it could offer.”
Q: are there any organisations or courses that have advised you on the transition process?
“Craig is currently surveying the soil health on the farm. He’s involved in this really good course (Soil Health & Regenerative Agriculture for Farmers) done by Niels Corfield where you take a little chunk of the soil out and literally survey parts of the land that were really overworked, for example, where Craig’s family might have been farming potatoes, and compare that with areas of the farm that haven’t been touched. The difference is quite astonishing really.
Moy Hill farm is another farm that really inspires us. We have got a lot of our educational resources from their YouTube videos over the years. Fergal does a really good job of portraying hard-to-understand information across to the average person.
The regenerative organic alliance is another great place to learn more about about regenerative farming and soil health. It’s been a really great resource for us.”
Q; what are the specific things you have done on your farm to improve soil health?
“One of the main pilot projects we’ve kickstarted is called ‘30x30’. What we’re aiming to do here is rewild or restore 30 percent of 30 acres by the year 2030. So that’s a lot! But we just wanted something to stick with it and it gives us a nice framework to work towards.
We’ve already planted some native Irish hardwood species like horse chestnut. And we’re looking at widening and developing wildlife corridors around field margins and creating mixed aquatic areas that include graduated-edge wetlands and shallow ponds to incorporate more wildlife friendly areas on the farm.
There are certain soil health principles that we try to adhere to, like having the land covered as much as possible. We try to steer away from the destructive practices like very deep tilling and applying masses of inorganic fertiliser to the land. With bare soil, it is known that CO2 comes off that when you turn it. And so tilling is obviously quite a destructive process.
We are looking at how we can regenerate the more unproductive areas of the farm too. We want to plant more trees and create sequestration zones where there’s a little bit of wetland or wet ground involved, because the potential there is is quite surprising when you look into it. Another thing is simply just leaving the ground alone.
We are trying to maximise diversity in our crop rotations at the moment, but obviously that will be kind of slowly changed as we adopt different practices.
Another thing is that the bacterial and microbial life - back to all the protozoa and bacteria, fungi - are kind of the biotic machinery of the ground. Prioritising the lives of those microbes is another thing that we’re striving to do.”
”I think it’s really important we get farmers on our team, because I really love the idea of a whole different sustainable farmers union but I really don’t want to alienate a whole group of people. It’s about getting rid of the divide that’s so strong between these two generations at the moment. And I really hope that if there are any older farmers from a different way of living, a different era that are reading this, we just want to send the message that we’re not against you. We think differently, but it’s only for your grandchildren’s benefit and for us, for our future.”
bad soil health takes away livelihoods and causes significant mental health issues. What mental health resources are available for struggling farmers?
“I think mental health is very important and it’s something a lot of a lot of farmers don’t really look into, or they might ignore because of the sort of stigma attached to having to be a strong, brave farmer.
There’s a resource called the Agriculture Horticulture Development Board. And if you go into that website, you can find each region of the UK and Ireland, and see the charity closest to you. They can help if you’re going through anything or if you need to get a thing or possibly even need funding for something. And obviously, I feel like we need to make people aware that things like that are out there. So for people and farming, the next hurdle is to try and get them to feel like it’s OK to actually be like ‘I need a bit of help here.’”
“Northern Ireland actually has the highest suicide rate in the UK and sometimes it’s upwards of twenty five percent higher and than the other parts of the UK. Between 2000 and 2013, male suicide rates in Northern Ireland increased by 73% percent for males and 43 percent for females and three to men are three times more likely to die from suicide. So the pressure that is placed on our shoulders is sometimes obviously quite evidently unbearable.
Yellow Wellies have a mental health resource called mind your head. It’s all just about removing that stigma and normalising farmers reaching out.”
“I can imagine back in the day, especially from talking to older generations of farmers, a thing that a lot of a lot of farmers really enjoyed was actually getting out in nature and being surrounded by wildlife. Now this community of farmers and the next generations down where we are now have been forced to speed everything up and produce everything quick. And, you know through the use of pesticides, they’ve actually got rid of a big part of their job that they probably really loved.”
When people talk about ecosystems, food chains and biodiversity, plants are often the foundational stage of all processes. But plants cannot grow and thrive without their constant interaction with soils.
Soil is formed by a combination of the area’s climate and weather patterns, time, the parent material beneath the topsoil, the topography of land and the organisms that interact with it. Waterlogged, sand-based soils in low-lying, hot areas possess unique properties that suit the plants and fauna of that region. Drier, clay-based soils in cold climates become the perfect base for ecosystems native to cooler conditions. It is both a reactive and a formative substance — one that supports the needs of animals and plants within an ecosystem, whilst adapting its own chemical and microbial structure to its surroundings.
Soil provides life-giving sources of food and materials but it also stores elements that can be harmful when released — like carbon. Sequestering carbon in soil is a natural way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with fewer impacts on land and water, less need for energy, and lower costs.
The earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon — more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. Soils remove a colossal 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions each year, making them one of the planet’s most effective carbon sinks.
But as half the land that can support plant life on Earth has been converted to croplands, soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of the carbon they once held. Agricultural practices, such as tilling, turn over the soil and expose the soil’s carbon to oxygen, allowing it to burn off into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Due to these common destructive practices, almost a quarter of the total manmade global emissions are caused by agricultural practices.
Due to our reliance on soil health to guarantee the mass production of food and textile products, conventional agriculture is the leading cause of global soil health degeneration. The methods used to grow food are influenced by the profit-motive driving global economic systems — destroying the long term health of soil in order to maximise the yield from their plots of land and garner ever-increasing profits from their crops.
Amongst conventional agriculture’s destructive practices, there are three which cause the most extensive damage.
In nature, crops grow amongst a plethora of other species that each contribute unique and essential nutrients to the soil which help the crop grow. In a monocrop the same crop is grown on the same area of land each year, for years on end. Each crop needs different nutrients from soil to grow, but if the same crop grows on the same soil each year it ends up depleting the soil of specific nutrients, altering its microbial structure and negatively impacting fertility over time. It can lead to a lack of organic matter being absorbed into the soil. It also causes erosion, as the crops are harvested and dry, dusty topsoil is left to be washed or blown away by the elements. The practice of monocropping gained widespread popularity in the West in the post-WWII era, when farmers were encouraged to specialise their yields in order to fit the demands of the growing food network and the transition to the mass production lines we see today.
In order to grow on overused soil or raise crops in soils which are deficient in important nutrients for the crop’s growth, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, farmers need fertilisers to replenish nutrients and ensure high crop yields. Synthetic fertilisers can cause decreases in soil’s microbiological diversity, soil acidification and a buildup of salts in the soil, all of which affect plant growth and soil health. They can also lead to heavy metal contamination and an accumulation of nitrate, which poisons the waterways, harming humans and animals.
Weeds, insects and fungi threaten the short term yield of food crops — which, when cultivated as monocrops, are particularly susceptible to large-scale attacks. To circumvent this risk, conventional agriculture employs enormous amounts of pesticides, protecting the health of their crops at the expense of soil health. Different pesticides impact soil health differently, but common negative effects include altering microbial diversity and harming earthworms and other essential insects. Fumigants, a type of pesticide designed to kill organisms in the soil before farmers start to plant, are so toxic that they kill beneficial bacteria and fungi alongside the targeted pests. They are equally dangerous to humans, and can cause illness or death upon inhalation.
Pesticides, monocrops and synthetic fertilisers have been subject to public scrutiny and bad press for decades — but, whilst awareness of their negative impacts is high, meaningful change lags behind. Movements pushing for organic, sustainable or regenerative practices clash against farmers union alliances with petrochemical companies and ‘Big Agriculture’. This alliance lobbies governments to be able to continue using damaging pesticides in order to maintain short term profits and preserve their monopolies. To combat this deadly alliance, communities of regenerative farmers have created a knowledge sharing alliance to enhance their own land and reform attitudes to soil health.
The history of regenerative agriculture starts and ends with the indigenous farming communities who cultivated the regenerative farming techniques that have shaped the modern regenerative agriculture movement. Aspects of these traditional techniques are sometimes taken and adapted with contemporary scientific knowledge, but many of them are the same as they were thousands of years ago. The main guiding principles are:
The regenerative agriculture movement has been growing like a well nourished crop in recent years, challenging the alliances between Big Ag and pesticide companies - bringing a wave of exciting, bottom-up reform.
Sustainable agriculture is an incredible tool to reduce inequality as it uses simple practices to empower local communities of farmers all over the world with the skills and tools they need to live in harmony with the land. Plant with Purpose helps spread sustainable farming techniques, like how to create erosion barriers and build water cisterns. This knowledge helps prevent damage being done to the environment as poverty forces destruction out of desperation. Their projects in South America, Africa and Asia have already transformed the lives of countless communities who didn’t previously have the techniques to replace the pesticides and fertilisers they couldn’t afford.
In richer cities which consume lots of produce, vertical farming - the practice of growing crops in stacked vertical layers in a controlled environment using soil-free growing techniques, artificial lighting and climate control - has been growing rapidly, aiming to reduce the burden on farmers and soil. Square Mile farms are just one of the vertical farms that sprung up to cut out food delivery emissions and integrate nature and food production into urban life.
The rise of regenerative agriculture has led to calls to learn the lessons of the organic movement and provide certifications for regenerative agriculture to adhere to. The Carbon Underground, a nonprofit dedicated to soil health, has introduced its own regenerative agriculture standard known as the Soil Carbon Initiative which aims to “build an outcome-based, verifiable standard designed to improve soil health and build soil carbon by encouraging the shift to regenerative agricultural practices.” The Regenerative Organic Certification, developed by the Rodale Institute and Patagonia fills a similar role, with requirements for soil health, animal health and farm worker fairness included in its certification. The Rodale Institute works across 21 farms on a number of projects and has started an exciting new initiative to farm palm oil in the US to reduce deforestation abroad.
Investment in the regenerative farming sector is increasing too. Farmland LP, founded in 2009, invests in converting conventional farmland to regenerative and organic practices. Elsewhere the Delta Institute partnered with Grower’s Edge Financial in 2019 to fund farmers converting to regenerative agriculture. The UK’s new environmental land management scheme shows that some governments are now understanding the importance of investment for the future of soil health.
The number of farms using regenerative practices is growing rapidly, as farmers reconnect with their land and learn to enhance the natural processes that govern it. As these methods come into full effect, animals return to old habitats, soil becomes healthy enough to absorb carbon again and healthy, chemical-free produce grows at prodigious rates. It is a fundamental function of natural cycles that what is dead can be revived with the right knowledge and application. Now we have the tools and the understanding to transform soil back into the vibrant, thriving source of life that it has always been!
We need to demand fundamental changes in the production process. First, we must force fast fashion companies to adopt transparency in their supply chains so we can have the information to campaign for the elimination of pollution at every level of the production line. To make sure we feel proud of where our clothes come from and where they end up, we can bring in impact assessment organisations to assess the full cycle of a clothing product, including the impact of microfibre pollution and short lifecycle clothes being left to degrade in dumps. Together, we can campaign to create an independent international fashion sustainability standard or certification to encourage fashion brands to reform unsustainable practices.
People-led movements can partner with workers and communities impacted by the pollution of the production process and take to the streets, pressuring companies to stop the use of synthetic materials and highly wasteful processes, and start building circular design principles into the production of clothes. Worker oppression is built into the bones of fast fashion. We have to fight campaigns in solidarity with workers rights and fair pay. In protecting workers rights, we will generate a snowball effect and raise the cost of production of new clothes, forcing fashion companies to stop their overproduction of new clothes and adopt circular economy principles such as garment repair and rental services.
The rise of Depop, Vinted and other second hand clothing apps has made it even easier to avoid fast fashion, while retaining the excitement of buying new clothes online in a fun and convenient way. Renting clothes from Hurr or By Rotation cuts off the problem at the source whilst allowing you to keep up with the latest trends! Wear more new styles and own less - what’s not to love? Charity shops can offer great bargains on classic styles, whilst plenty of ethical brands can offer clothes that are both sustainable and affordable! Buy used. Buy ethical. Buy items made to last.
The limitation of changing your consumer habits is that they fail to add up to the critical mass needed to generate change. By ‘mass,’ we mean either really large numbers of every day participants, a smaller number of leaders with money or power, or a perfect storm of media attention. One of the most efficient ways to quickly reach critical mass is through social media storms — when a group of people (even a relatively small one) coordinates an attack on the social media profile of a dirty company by posting a large number of negative reviews in a short period of time. These inexpensive and easy-to-coordinate campaigns can create enough noise to be reported by mass media outlets, achieving the critical mass needed to push real change within a company, or even a whole industry.
Donate clothes in small loads to local charity shops in much more sustainable than donating in bulk to services that pay you per kilo — or even to large charities or overseas donation boxes. The reason is that clothes donated in bulk have higher chances of not being sorted, handled or distributed properly, often ending up as waste in less developed countries with poor waste management infrastructure. Re-gifting clothes to friends and family, up-cycling and direct / local donations are better alternatives.
To really address the fashion industry’s racist foundations we’ve got to push further. The most crucial step is campaigning for high-polluting brands to pay substantial eco-reparations to the affected communities. Another important shift we need is having diverse representation among models and influencers, in terms of the racial backgrounds, but also the body types and fashion philosophies on showcase.
Kiss the Ground has catalysed a movement through the power of film and accessible science communication: their resources on soil science and and the accompanying book (which you can buy here) are some of the best available!
Donate to The Farmland Program which provides the necessary support farmers need to adapt their management decisions to produce positive ecological, financial, and social outcomes.
Donate to The Pesticide Action Network and help fund a variety of campaigns focused on banning harmful pesticides from different areas of society.
Volunteer for or become a member of the British Society of Soil Science to keep abreast of the latest science on soil health and to help fund the World Congress of Soil Science 2022 - a leading international soil science conference, held every four years in different countries and attended by over 3,000 soil scientists from around the globe.
Sign up for Kiss the Ground’s soil advocate training which explains the principles of regenerative agriculture, shows students different advocacy pathways, and teaches students how to speak about and demonstrate these principles for different audiences. There’s an excellent course on stewardship so you can get involved with different parts of the soil movement! Why not sign up to regenerative agriculture 101 too?
The British Society of Soil Science’s 3 simple actionable steps for the #Grounded campaign:
• Remove patio slabs and paving to help soils absorb water in heavy rainfall. This will slow the flow into drains, and particularly help to prevent flash floods, which will be crucial in cities as climate change leads to increased intense rainfall.
• Plant cover crops instead of leaving soil bare. Cover crops or ‘green manure’ are popular with allotment holders and farmers, and add carbon and nutrients to the soil naturally, reducing the need for artificial fertilisers.
• Don’t use peat-based compost. The intensive mining of peat bogs has a detrimental impact on the climate and local ecosystems. If you have the space, start your own compost heap, rather than buying compost or disposing of your food and garden waste in your green-waste bin.
Work with Regeneplate and other sustainable farmers to lobby the farmers union to cut their ties with big pesticide and synthetic fertiliser companies. Create a faction within the farmers union that can shape their position on issues like pesticides and pave the way for wide reaching pesticide and synthetic fertiliser bans. These must take into account the need to look after farmers and facilitate a stable transition to large scale regenerative farming practices.
Start, or partner with, an organisation that goes to farmers and advises, based on the unique composition of their land, how they can best switch to sustainable agriculture methods. The daunting nature of the transition to sustainable agricultural methods and the intimidating need for specific biological knowledge is a primary reason why farmers don’t switch to sustainable methods. Now that the UK’s environmental land management scheme rewards farmers for sustainable farming practices, the financial incentive matches the environmental imperative. The only thing missing is the explicit instructions and communication of the scientific information necessary to manage a sustainable farm.