Deborah Chu

Ask an expert: what is soil health, and why is it important?

5 min Read
Person running their hand through a wheelbarrow of soil

Almost a year ago, I had an incredible conversation with Vegware’s Annalise Matthew about compostable vs biodegradable packaging. Our chat truly opened my eyes to the wonderful world of compost—but near the end, our chat took an unexpected turn, when she started talking to us about soil health and why it’s so important in our fight against climate change. 

Intrigued, I set out to do a bit more digging. And luckily, the wonderful Mellany Klompe of the Soil Heroes Foundation was happy to oblige my burning curiosity! Soil Heroes helps farmers transition to regenerative agricultural methods; provides proof of practice on how regenerative agriculture (or ‘regen ag’, as the cool kids are calling it) boosts soil health and nutrition; and connects farmers with businesses that want to support this most worthy cause. 

As an environmental scientist and a farmer herself, Mellany helped me realise the vital importance of what lies right beneath our feet. Strap in for a deep dive. Alternatively, quick jump to each answer by clicking the question below.

Why is soil health important?

Healthy soils are a key element in many of the ecosystem services that support life on earth—no big deal, eh? From pollination, to climate resilience, to carbon sequestration, our soils underpin all the natural systems that we and our planet rely upon to thrive.

Soil is no less than ‘the basis of our existence’, says Mellany. ‘We live on it, but it also produces our food and fibres. It’s the source for all our natural resources and minerals, which we use in our industrial processes. If we don’t take care of our soils, we don’t take care of ourselves.’

What is regenerative agriculture?

‘It’s a set of agricultural principles which all come back to one line, which is: it needs to add to soil health,’ says Mellany. Common tenets of regenerative agriculture include no or low tillage, crop rotations, growing cover crops and using organic fertilisers to help crops build up their natural resilience.

Regenerative agriculture also recognises that soils will be different in different areas, and require different methods of care. For instance, many farms that practise regenerative agriculture will brew their own biofertiliser made from leaves and fungi in the nearby area. Rather than relying on fertilisers (which are derived from fossil fuels!) every farm will have a different recipe for biofertiliser, says Mellany, ‘because what we need on our sea clay soils [in the Netherlands] is different from the sand soils in Australia.’

How are conventional agricultural practices impacting soil health?

Current mainstream agricultural practices — such as intensive farming, and using excessive amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics — have damaging effects on soil health, particularly in depleting the amount of organic matter in soils. The loss of organic matter makes soils less productive, more prone to erosion, and less capable of sequestering carbon. According to the FAO, a third of the world’s soils are now moderately to highly degraded.

What’s the connection between food production and climate change?

Extreme weather events such as increased bushfires, droughts and flooding have a direct impact on food production—and with severe weather becoming increasingly common due to climate change, the stability of our global food supply is at risk.

Our current farming methods are also exacerbating the climate crisis, with an estimated 25-30% of global emissions stemming from food systems. As mentioned above, the declining health of our soils plays a big role in this problem!

Mellany cites Project Drawdown’s report 100 Solutions to Reverse Global Warming, and points out that 60 of those practices are connected to agriculture. ‘Everyone now knows we need to change things,’ she says. ‘[So] not only do we need to change how we farm because we need to fight climate change and biodiversity loss, but because we need to make our food production more resilient. And regenerative practices will be one of the biggest contributions to that.’

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Does regenerative agriculture produce the same amount of food?

It’s all about how you look at it, says Mellany. ‘At the start of the transition to regenerative agriculture, it’s true that production will decrease, because the soil is addicted to chemical fertilisers. But after six or seven years, we’re achieving the same yields as we did when we were farming the conventional way, but now with less inputs [like fertilisers and pesticides], so our revenue is higher.’

‘On the other hand, if we continued with conventional farming, our yields would have continued to go down because the soil was depleted. And if the soil is depleted, in the worst case scenario, it becomes a desert. And you can’t grow food in a desert.’

What governmental support do farmers need to transition to regenerative agriculture?

Mellany believes that the best way to support farmers is by paying them for their efforts to boost ecosystem services.

Happily, the UK is starting to go down this route, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announcing a new raft of policies and payments available to farmers. As part of this new strategy, farmers will now also be paid to improve the health of grasslands and soils, manage habitats and plant trees, amongst other schemes. A very welcome step in the right direction!

What can individuals do to support soil health?

Changing our diet is a great way to push for a healthier agricultural system, says Mellany. ‘If we look at current crop rotations, farms are mainly rotating between four crops,’ she says. ‘We need to learn how to eat more diverse foods, and to pay a fair price for them.’

Eating less meat will also make a difference. ‘80% of the wheat that is grown in the Netherlands is for animal consumption,’ she says. ‘Same with the soybean industry in South America. If we ate less meat, we can create more space for more diverse crop rotation plans, and more diverse food systems.’

What benefits are there for businesses to support regenerative practices?

Businesses such as Patagonia and Lavera have connected with Soil Heroes as a means of strengthening their profiles and proving that business as usual won’t cut it anymore. ‘They want to stand up and prove that you can do business without harming and having a negative impact on the world,’ Mellany says. Some companies also choose to support Soil Heroes as a means of offsetting unavoidable emissions.

These partnerships are fruitful for Soil Heroes too, as they then work with these partners to increase regenerative practices within their own supply chain of farmers. ‘It also gives [these] companies a better and clearer connection with their suppliers,’ she says.

What do you hope the agricultural sector will look like in 10 years?

Mellany points to positive developments in European subsidy systems, but also hopes that people will start changing their expectations around what kind of food they’re willing to accept.

For example, she says, approximately 40% of all potatoes currently cannot be sold because they do not conform to size or aesthetic standards, which places another undue burden on farmers’ margins and results in needless food waste. ‘We need support from all of society, both retailers and consumers. The big potatoes, the small potatoes—they’re still potatoes. It’s good food.’

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