2015 is the year of soil. So what are our governments going to do?

Provide more than lip service?  Act cautiously and acknowledge the corporations who may have a conflict of interest when it comes to policy advice and investment in research?  Acknowledge that building soil humus, carbon and micro-nutrient availability is a long process without immediate returns?  Longer than even, say, an election cycle?  Will our governments give academics the freedom to research peer reviewed academic literature that may conflict with the mainstream view of soil management? 

Will our agricultural newspapers enable journalists to write honestly and openly about soil quality?  Facilitate a discussion that has the freedom to critically examine how we are managing the biological life in our soils? Despite advertiser preferences and potential conflicts of interest?  Will our newspapers and media outlets act in the best interests of the farmer?

As Franklin D Roosevelt said in 1937: 'The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself'.

Who can blame farmers when faced with soil fertility decline? I remember watching my dad farm back in the 1970's and thinking, 'you are so good at so many things'. You can drive a tractor, ride a horse, weld up stockyards, drench animals, attend to them, kill and cut up a beast, shear a sheep, plough a field, sow crops - I thought he was pretty amazing. He never stopped. I try to never underestimate the stress placed on farmers to manage a farm. 

But today - it's harder. Forms, obligations, safety standards and other bookkeeping requirements make it harder for a farmer to be outside doing what he/she wants to do - their job. You might think the government doesn't really want farmers outside working.

What adds to the stress? Monopolist/duopolist supermarkets, distributors and exporters have extreme bargaining power. Farmers can't fight this. Their margins are squeezed tighter. They're too busy doing everything else to challenge these big guys. And if farmers are lucky enough to have an effective marketing board that helps them negotiate, the grip that keeps the marketing board together to demand reasonable prices (and not just look after corporate within), seems to often be quite tenuous. Various market mechanisms add to the mix and distort pricing on an international scale.

So there is little stretch in annual farm return to reinvest in something as innocuous as soil improvement. It's not 'urgent'. Soil fertility decline is deceptively slow. Another year can slip by. Farmers have to do everything they can, just to get one crop off and another in the ground to simply pay their mortgage.  

And in the meantime there is little spare cash or focus by government on soil quality. Without time and investment, soil nutrients decrease, soil becomes more friable and less fertile. Unfortunately, if farmers are locked in to pricing structures that means they have no wriggle room, it can be really difficult to question and analyse spray regimes (introduced in the 1980's) that may be depleting their soil and give the microbial life that rebuilds soil, time to recover. (Spray regimes can take away the essential soil bacteria and organisms that traditionally convert organic matter into useable micronutrients for plant vigour and health). But most Ag departments aren't funded to investigate this. Nor the knock on effect on stock health and profitability.  

Farmers can be locked into a system that doesn't provide enough margin to regenerate their land. Many watch this happening, knowing it is, but it's just another cost. Yet quality of soil affects everything from susceptibility of the plant to disease, to how durable a product is on a long voyage. Consequent nutrient availability affects consumer health.

The world is starting to have a discussion about how to farm sustainably. How to go beyond corporate lip service and manage the soil to prevent decline of fertility and loss of arable land. Today's three trace element system (N P K) is not enough. Our soils are more complex than that. And so are we. This discussion is in its infancy and tends to be ignored by most governments (and 'conventional' ag newspapers). Land degradation is occurring on every continent.

It's a well known maxim that all disease starts in the soil. It comes down to lack of nutrients.

Nutrient depletion is reflected in our food quality :

 'A 2003 analysis by Royal Society of British Chemists and the British Ministry of Agriculture of the statistics on the composition of foods from 1940–1991 showed mineral content declines in fruit and vegetables of 16% for potassium to as much as 76% for copper. This trend is confirmed by various other surveys including analysis of USDA food composition data. The surveys show 60% average decline in the vitamin and mineral content of our food.' [1]

How do we 'finance soil'?  Work intelligently and realistically to help farmers nourish their soil. Acknowledge the conflicts of interest within academic funding programs that may inhibit wide ranging and transparent research. How do we act to reduce potential degradation and facilitate complexity in mineral & nutrient availability to enable plants to perform their own insect and fungal disease resistance. Build humus and carbon to prevent erosion.

This takes effort and money to change. It's a cultural shift. Fertile soil makes more food. Healthier food. More transportable food. More nourishing food.

How do we turn the system around? How do we 'finance soil'? 

[1] True Health. Getting fully mineralised soils. Section: The decline and fall.