Field of Enquiry V: Soil & Sustainability

Our soils – we ask so much of them yet take so little care of them. Miesbeth Knottenbelt, Nourish member & volunteer, reports on the fifth session of the 2000m2 Field of Enquiry series at Whitmuir The Organic Place, on Saturday the 28thth of January, which focused on soils and sustainability. 


A key observation in course organiser’s Heather Anderson’s summary of the course so far was: ‘The big issue is always that consumers want food cheap. The housewife is always blamed. I have never met her, but I know she is in big trouble.’ Maybe this theme will continue in the next session (on health and diets), but for this week, the challenges lay mainly with the policy makers and the people who work the land.


The frontier of science

One of the first slides of the day showed us bunches of miserable-looking sheep crowded together on small islands of muddy grass in large flooded fields. The message is loud and clear: if we looked after our soils, we would not be facing these problems. It is obvious, really: as complex, living ecosystems, each bit of soil has a history, so each past use contributes to its present qualities. It is formed by a large set of factors which all impact on its composition, structure…., and what is in it, ends up in us. We expect huge things from it (we build on it, we plant on it…), yet we allow it to degrade (by covering it up, packing it down, piling it up, moving it around, poisoning it, letting it wash away…). Surprisingly, it is the frontier of science: we have very little knowledge about what is in it (only an estimated 5% of the billions of microorganisms in soil are known to science). E.g. what do these cute abundant and extremely hardy waterbears do?

In Scotland, soils of Class 1 and 2 are very scarce (1-2%) and yet we make huge demands on the little quality soil there is (the central belt – ‘the middle squeeze’). Yet, there is no oversight, adequate monitoring nor long-term integrated planning. We urgently need joined up policies, monitoring of consequences, learning from the past, and feeding into all planning in all sectors. Farmers’ and public education on soils (about its importance, the need for protection, maximising productivity, etc.), so there is a much wider understanding, needs to be addressed (into the national curriculum?).



A fascinating story of Scottish peatland illustrated these points: it was (still is?) seen as wasteland, and we have huge amounts of it. Since the late 1700s, the recommendation was to drain it (it is made up of 90% water), and turn it into ‘something useful’. But despite the fact that we know that draining it does not lead to much greater ‘productivity’, draining continues, and also huge amounts of peat is harvested, built on (e.g. wind mills), and destroyed in other ways. Drainage immediately kills the mosses (sphagnum) and changes the land very fast. Yet, peatland is key to flood prevention, water quality preservation, biodiversity and wildlife (and hence also sport and leisure), and it is a key store of carbon and other greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, it is also easily restored by stopping the water outflow, and much bogland is being repaired currently. The challenge is not simple: There are conflicting interests with forestry replanting and wind energy policies (‘we need trees and windmills too, but in the right place’). Bans are hard to monitor, benefits and costs are hard to calculate (‘bees don’t send invoices!’), and science is way behind in showing the evidence needed to persuade the policy makers. So we need to work around incentives: payments for keeping sheep and deer need to be stopped, and money needs to be made available for bog repair (perhaps from cost savings on insurance claims from flood damage?).


Soil & carbon

The relationship between carbon emissions and soil was set out in a fascinating, more technical, presentation by Janet Moxley, which reinforced the importance of our abundant but diminishing peatland as a carbon store. Draining increases carbon release, and generally grassland stores carbon better than cropland. The worse land use from the carbon emissions perspective is therefore draining peatland for cropping, which also necessitates running pumps to control water levels (widespread practice by large vegetable growers on English fenland).

The snow and cold did not put us off from an outing to Whitmuir: to have a look at layers of soil visible in two large holes in the ground, especially dug to allow us to see the morning’s theory come to life, and learn about different quality soils.


Field of Enquiry series

You can access the presentations and resources of the Field of Enquiry series in this Dropbox folder. You can read Miesbeth’s blogs about the previous sessions on land use here, on biodiversity here , on bread here and on waste here. If you have questions about the series, you can e-mail Heather Anderson at heather @