OPINION: How much do you know about the ground beneath your feet?

North Devon Gazette

As the wild, torrential rain battered down last night I was rather worried about the dodgy leaking roof, but more so about the amount of topsoil that would have been washing off of fields.Â

Our soil structures are not what they were, after years of intensive ploughing and pesticides, they have been damaged into a crumbly sand-like substance not strong enough to withstand the heavy monsoon style rain which we see more of these days. Â

Recently for the exhibition at the Burton I dug up two samples of soil, one from a ‘Culm’ grassland which had only been harvested for hay and grazed by Devon Ruby Reds for the last 20 years, and one from a Maize field just 300 metres away which had been ploughed, drilled and sprayed and combined each year, for the last 20 years.Â

The sample of the non-ploughed grassland was tough to dig up, it came out in one perfect solid clump, it was dark in colour and had an incredible root structure throughout which held it all together, it was home to lots of worms, it was aeriated yet strong.Â

The sample from the intensively farmed arable field crumbled as I picked it up, it was lighter in colour, with no worms present, it had no roots holding it together and when heavy rain happens, it is very susceptible to getting washed away.Â

This is a scary thought, considering how much land in the UK is farmed intensively for arable, many farmers and scientists believe we only have 60-100 years of topsoil left, that is 60-100 harvests. Of course, topsoil does regenerate, but at a lot slower rate than what it is currently being lost at. It typically takes 100 years to make 1 inch of topsoil.Â

This is probably the biggest, albeit less spoken about crisis that we face today, yet the ‘green’ narrative that is being pushed promotes practises that are going to cause more degradation of our soils and demotes practises which could help them, such as pasture fed beef farming.Â

Frustratingly, the people who push the narrative that cows are the cause of climate change are people who have huge investments in synthetic alternatives and huge investments in making sure the world doesn’t stop consuming all these products that use oil to be produced.Â

The very idea that something that has been farmed for hundreds of years for human consumption, on the rugged hills of Scotland down to the wet clay pastures of Devon, able to eat grass and hay all year round with no other inputs is all of a sudden a huge environmental concern astounds me… could it not be that possibly the amount of cars and planes running each day, the amount of fashion garments being produced, the amount of computers, tv’s, cookers, microwaves, fridges, plastic toys being produced might just be more of the cause of the problem?Â

I know I’d rather be stuck in a locked garage with a cow that has done a poo rather than a running car engine.Â

Chemical fertilisers have only really been used excessively since WW2, they literally were created to use up chemicals used to make bombs, and then were seen to be an industry that the chemical companies could profit from.Â

So, farming, after years of subsidies, being mis-sold fertilisers and pesticides and the introduction of huge machinery has gone down a scary path, very far from its roots, which traditionally were more about looking after the soil, in which the roots reside.Â

We need to go back to basics, small scale farming, cover crops to hold soil together through winter months, rotational grazing structures and pasture fed beef are all really good solutions because they all will help improve soil health, which sustains all life on earth, not to mention, has the capacity to hold most of the current CO2 emissions we create each year.