Thursday, 21 May 2015

How should we protect our soil?

Today’s post is a reprint of a letter in the JEP because I think it needs wider coverage, and also a comment by Glyn Mitchell on the Bailiwick article.

On Thursday 23 April 2015, the Bailiwick Express reported that:

“The latest figures show that Jersey Water's supplies are within EU limits, but "raw water" running off fields regularly exceeds them. The Environment department has issued the water company with a dispensation that expires on 31 December 2016 - the company haven't had to use that dispensation since 2013, for a slight breach of the limit.”

Environment Minister Steve Luce said: “One thing that is changing is that the medical advice from around the world is different and certainly there is more emphasis being placed on the levels of nitrate in water.

“We are advised, as the Department which issues dispensations to Jersey Water, that our advice will be quite soon that we should not be continuing to issue dispensations, so we are fully aware now that in the coming years we may well not be in a position to issue those dispensations.”

I should point out that there was for many years a relatively free and much better fertilizer, namely using seaweed as fertiliser - known as vraic in Jèrriais.

In fact, seaweed contains all major and minor plant nutrients, and all trace elements; alginic acid; vitamins; auxins; at least two gibberellins; and antibiotics. An article on seaweed notes the following anecdotes:

“We have a market gardener customer at Sittingbourne in Kent who tells us that before he used seaweed meal, heavy rain used to run down his sloping plots and carry all his seedlings and fertilizers into the ditch. Since his introduction of seaweed, the structure of his silty, sandy soil has so improved that soil, seedlings and nutrients are no longer of being washed away, even in the heaviest rain.”

“As to water-retaining characteristics, Miss Constance MacFarlane of the Nova Scotia Research Foundation told members of the Fourth Seaweed Symposium at Biarritz, in 1961: 'In the spring of 1956 I was greatly impressed with fields in the island of Jersey. This was not in any way a scientific experiment, but the results were most obvious. The year 1955 had been exceedingly dry. The only fields suitable for a second crop of hay were those which had been fertilized with seaweed. All the others had dried out, and had to be ploughed up for other crops.'”

And here is the letter and comment from Glyn:

How should we protect our soil?
From Glyn Mitchell.

'Green policies could be given a higher priority by the States after the Assembly agreed to adopt environmental changes to a proposed government strategy document draw up for the current political term.' (JEP 29 April).

Is this good enough? Do we have the luxury of time? Can we rely on the States Assembly - and department responsible - to protect our Island for the enjoyment of future generations?

Generating three centimetres of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said "on Friday.

About a third of the world's soil has already been degraded, Maria-Helena Semedo; of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, told a forum marking World Soil Day.

The causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming.

The earth under our feet is too often ignored by policymakers, experts said.

'Soils are the basis of life,' said Semedo, FAO's deputy director general of natural resources. 'Ninety five percent of our food comes from the soil.' Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.

Soils play a key role in absorbing carbon and filtering water, the FAO reported. Soil destruction creates a vicious cycle, in which less carbon is stored, the world gets hotter, and the land is further degraded.

'We are losing. 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming,' Volkert Engelsman, an activist with the International-Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements told the forum at the FAO's headquarters in Rome.

More locally a recent Scrutiny Environmental Policy Review proposed that `consideration be given to ensuring that effective sustainable soil management is included in the vision, strategy and plans for the Island's future well-being and prosperity'.

After sampling Island soils for microbial populations, I am pleased to say we have some very healthy soils; equally we have some of the sickest, found in our agricultural fields.

Has the time come to protect our Island's soils by law? With technical and scientific advances some say we are the pivotal generation, the question we have to ask ourselves - are we comfortable trying to solve current soil problems by financially supporting the systems that created the problem in the first place, or is it time to explore more natural forms of farming?

`Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.'

'The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself' - Franklin D Roosevelt.

Comment on Bailiwick Express by Glyn Mitchell.

First I would like to say you would be unwise to blame only the farmers. Anyone who applies Growmore, MiracleGrow etc are as guilty of increasing the nitrate levels in the soil as anyone else.

Although not apparent to the naked eye, a healthy soil is a dynamic living system that is teeming with life. Most of the organisms that live in the soil are beneficial micro-organisms such as fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes. While seemingly insignificant, they are represented in the millions in any given soil, providing a range of important services that promote plant growth and vigour.

The collective term for all of these organisms is the 'soil food web'. The interactions amongst these organisms can provide plants with many of the requirements that they need to survive and flourish which includes the availability & retention of nutrients, disease suppression, and the building of soil structure. However, soil biology is an aspect that has largely been overlooked with many growers preferring to settle for something delivering a quick short term fix.

The use of chemicals to kill pathogens and pests can also kill the beneficial organisms. The result is a sterile environment conducive to further disease and nutrient deficiencies. The quick fix often leads to a grower’s dependency on more and more artificial chemical and fertilisers to maintain his crops, as with each application he is killing the natural soil food web. This could be compared to developing a drug dependency and the need to enter rehabilitation to kick the habit.

A balanced and healthy soil food web provides many benefits including the need for fertiliser, pesticide and water requirements can all be substantially reduced. This is accomplished by understanding what good guys and bad guys populate your soil and then applying a good organic compost to provide healthy competition.

Bacteria are responsible for producing organic Nitrate (NO3) they get eaten by nematodes who excrete ammonium (NH4), or nitrate (NO2) ions. This important process is called nitrogen fixation. Industrial fixation (inorganic nitrate) cannot be consumed into a plant available form by microorganisms, so after the plants has taken up all it can absorb the rest leaches into our soil and ends up in our drinking water. It is akin to throwing away money.

So the question remains who is responsible for the cleanup. There is an argument that suggests the Department that licences the application of Inorganic applications should be held responsible for the cleanup cost, not organisations further down the line. Which puts Deputy Luce in a predicament, so why not introduce a charge on nitrate and “cides” through the dock heads and use the revenue received to support farmers wanting to move to more natural methods of growing organic food?

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