World Soil Day: Why does sustainable animal farming matter for soil health?
If the EU Soil Strategy for 2030 is to effectively tackle soil degradation it needs to include measures on animal farming.
One of the world's preeminent and leading soil scientists, Dr. Charles E. Kellogg said, “Essentially, all life depends upon the soil. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.” As we mark World Soil Day today, his words are ever more pertinent with the ongoing food security crisis and climate emergency.
If we restore the soil, then we can begin to tackle these very issues.
But to do this we must address animal farming, which lies at the very heart of this major issue. Animal farming is the biggest cause of land degradation, and by extension, of soil erosion and deterioration which is directly threatening the availability of food, essential to human survival. In fact, 95% of food production is dependent on soils. According to the European Commission’s assessment, carried out before the adoption of the EU Soil Strategy for 2030, 70% of EU soil ecosystems are unhealthy. This is extremely worrying and needs to be rapidly resolved.
It has been a year since the presentation of the Strategy and its objectives of protection and restoration of soils should receive robust solutions in the 2023 EU Soil Health Law and other initiatives that should follow it. The simplest solution is to tackle factory farming, a sector that has consistently avoided taking responsibility for its serious climate and environmental impacts. There is clear scientific evidence on the changes needed from the livestock sector, a transition towards more sustainable farming practices is necessary and the overall number of farmed animals must be reduced to avoid excessive waste and pollution.
Following on from this, a study conducted by experts from the Joint Research Centre, the Dutch Environmental Agency and the broader academic community, calculated that livestock farming is responsible for 80% of soil acidification in the EU. Indeed, industrial animal farming is responsible for soil degradation in multiple ways. A sustainable use of manure can improve soil fertility by increasing nutrients available for plants and microbial diversity as well as reducing soil erosion and water loss. However, as is often more the case, the excessive amount of manure from too many animals leads to nutrient pollution, as soils are unable to absorb all the waste.
We are seeing other dangers too.
Incredibly, Farm to Fork, the EU´s flagship strategy, highlights that 30,000 deaths are caused each year due to dangerous overuse of antibiotics in animals and humans, has also detrimental effects on soil. Antibiotics reach soil through the spreading of manure and slurry from farm animals. Once there, they cause a significant decrease in important soil microbes that help provide nutrients for plants, leading to a decay of soil fertility and crop yields.
This where we need to see change.
An ambitious Soil Health Law alongside improved animal welfare can address this and contribute to the Farm to Fork’s 50% reduction target for the sale of antimicrobials.
If the Soil Health Law is to effectively protect soils, it must include provisions to facilitate this transformation. Firstly, appropriate livestock unit figures for area-based farming should be established as a requirement for the sustainable use of soil. This would encourage a shift to integrated and closed systems that would utilise the synergies between animals, crops and soil. Secondly, a regular and strong monitoring system of these soils is a critical tool that would ensure that the legislation is being upheld. Thirdly, mandatory checks on grasslands should ensure that no oversaturation takes place, in order to preserve the soil quality.
Whilst the coming Soil Health Law is necessary, it will not be sufficient to bring about this systemic change. Building on the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy, new initiatives need to be introduced to reduce the unjustifiable number of EU livestock as well as unsustainable farming practices, while providing a reliable source of income for our farmers. This path starts with an increase of EU funding – including CAP – to promote agricultural practices that are aligned with agroecological principles, while cutting all funding for polluting activities. In the current context, this applies to biogas funding proposals for factory farms, which undermine the potential success of the Farm to Fork Strategy goals.
When it comes to farming models that could improve soil health, sustainable grazing practices that keep animals on pasture can help stimulate root growth, producing more biomass below ground, building humus and storing carbon in the soil. Increasing the root mass in soils is key, not only to retain water and reduce erosion, but also to make land more resilient against floods and droughts. From an animal welfare perspective, ruminants are anyway best fed with grass and hay according to their needs – with extra food and fibre in the non-vegetation period if necessary – rather than processed feeds, which have further climate and environmental consequences.
If we are to evolve together, as Dr. Kellogg said, and have a healthy ecosystem between the planet, people and animals, then animal farming’s nexus with soil must be at the very foundation of the EU agricultural policies.