Published: 25/10/2022

Save our Soils!

Charlie Clutterbuck, Ph.D, climate campaigner and Unite the Union member

500 years ago, Da Vinci said that we knew more about the stars than we do about what is under our feet. It is the same today, as telescopes peer into the universe, ‘looking for signs of life,’ while most people remain oblivious to the billions of life forms running round under their feet. To most people it is dirt. But a closer look may show that dirt could help ‘save the world.’

James Lovelock, creator of Gaia theory, was asked about climate change modelling, and he said it was fine as far as physical and chemical elements go but lacks biological inputs. We need to factor in how life on earth interacts with the climate. Soil has the biggest source of life in that thin skin covering the globe.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been sceptical about how much soil can do for climate change, saying that when the soil warms up–as it will–the carbon in the soil will be lost as gas. More Greenhouse Gases (GHG) will be released because microbes will work faster digesting debris. Fungi will release more carbon dioxide as they provide aerobic digestion, while bacteria tend to produce more methane, as many digest anaerobically. But the following example shows why we should look at the whole of life in dirt. An international collaboration between researchers from the US, Finland and the Czech Republic worked with that boring creature that scurries under stones: woodlice. They showed that where they proliferate, they help save the planet as they eat the debris, digesting microbes and thus keeping carbon in the soil.

Most climate change events involve water. When I see extreme weather events, I shout at the screen: “But what have they been doing with the soil?” All over the world, soil, and its role with water, is disregarded, while also being degraded, and often eroded.

A recent paper in Nature found “a potential overall increase in global soil erosion driven by cropland expansion. The greatest increases are predicted to occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The least developed economies have been found to experience the highest estimates of soil erosion rates.” Note, it is clear about ‘cropland.’

Soil is now getting attention because it could help reduce climate change by capturing more carbon, ‘sequestration.’ This has vast potential as soil already holds as much carbon as all plants and the air together. For those people who like counting carbon, they see this as a big bonanza. There are world markets to ‘offset carbon.’ Lumps of ‘notional’ carbon are being sold so that polluting companies can claim they are not impacting the planet because they have ‘offset’ their emissions with carbon credits. Carbon in soil is going to be difficult to count, as every meter is different and changes all the time, and much of the money going to calculate this carbon will not go to farmers but to lawyers and accountants. The carbon buyers still pollute and claim they have balanced their emissions by capturing some soil carbon.

While welcoming the attention soil is now getting, it is worrying that it is reduced to one element: carbon. We should realize that it is not a matter of carbon and cash but life. A lot of carbon in soil is running round in loads of different creatures, and that helps to maintain soil structures that retain water. Soil under forests hold about twice as many small soil creatures as does soil under pasture. In turn pastures hold twice as many as that under the plough in arable land. Growing vegetables and grain in the way we do–arable annual monocultures–is losing us millions of tonnes of soil per year and affecting the climate. But we do not talk about that.


We are also beginning to realise that there is another important soil property that could help save the world. And this could bring impacts in 10 years rather than ‘carbon targets’ in 30 years’ time. This is water holding. Soil is like a sponge. Its structure has lots of pores which can hold water to varying degrees. The healthier the soil the better it does that. Very roughly speaking, an extra 1% organic matter enables an extra 3000 gallons to be held in an acre.

Soils with more water are cooler than those without. Basically, the water helps the sun’s rays bounce off. Lie on grass in the sun and it is a lot cooler than lying on sand.

Soil is a vital part of the water cycle. The water evaporates from open soil, including arable fields, leaving it to get hotter. Temperatures on bare soil in temperate climes can be over 50C. Pastures keep soil temperatures cool at around 20C.

Water in soil has another even more important function. Moist air rising has a much better chance of producing rain than dry air that is rising. Somebody should calculate the fall in temperature that would follow pastures replacing ploughed land and deserts, and its contribution to global warming mitigation.

We could do with some of our old soil research stations to work out the contribution of various local practices, covering land with cover crops, pasture, and woods. And reward them. It would be a whole lot better than selling carbon offsets.

There is a groundswell of farmers wanting to regenerate their soils: bringing more life back, thereby reducing input costs, and contributing more to local communities. One example is the increased use of ‘mob grazing’ where herds graze pasture for only a day or two before being moved on, like animals in the wild. But there is little political will, with virtually no government in the world investing in soil improvement. There may be an awakening as prices of fertilizers are shooting up, and many are looking for ways to reduce their input costs.

Trade Union roles

Unions are well placed to coordinate local, regional, national, and international action. There is an international push called ‘4 in 1000’ campaign which seeks to increase organic matter content of soils by 0.4% year. Global warming could be halted by increasing organic matter in soils. All countries must do everything possible to achieve this seemingly modest soil target. Despite many countries signing up for this, few are taking action.  Unions could promote and monitor national action on soil regeneration.

Climate stability also requires a drastic reduction in the burning of fossil fuels.

All over the world we could be explaining the best and most direct and fastest way to reduce global warming is to reduce the temperature of the surface and cover the planet with plants being eaten by animals. That means ensuring cover with more perennial crops in arable fields, and more grass, shrubs and trees. If somebody says we cannot produce enough food like that, remind them we can easily produce twice the food grown. When somebody says we need to produce ‘more, more, more,’ remind them that such production is short term, relies on monoculture, emits more GHG’s and leads to immediate falls in market prices, so producers cut costs including  our wages. We can provide enough food, grown under better conditions and pay workers better, so we can afford the food served. It means regulation of the market.

At regional and local levels, we need to be building closer links within the food and farm chain–the farm to fork philosophy–between town and country. We need to encourage more farms to regenerate their soils and use less energy intensive inputs that wash life away in soils. Local representatives could ask their companies about their food supply chain. 98% of the food we eat is grown in or on soil. Instead of ruining land on the other side of the world, we could grow healthy local food. These more circular economies can regenerate local economies, rather than leaving it to food gamblers on the world market to exploit shortages, as they are doing now.

Having been a trade union tutor for 20 years (and farmer and food worker) with a PhD in soil ecology for 50 years, I’ve always believed Karl Marx when he said that the source of all our wealth is labour and soil. In the labour movement we need to link with environmental groups but remind them nothing gets done without labour.

Saving our soils is going to require a massive effort. We may see it is ‘our’ soil, but that soil is usually somebody else’s ‘land.’ Unions understand those sorts of contradictions and could play an important part that others cannot. It could help our members and save the planet too.

Saving our soils is going to require a massive effort. We may see it is ‘our’ soil, but that soil is usually somebody else’s ‘land.’ Unions understand those sorts of contradictions and could play an important part that others cannot. It could help our members and save the planet too.
Charlie Clutterbuck, Ph.D, climate campaigner and Unite the Union member