Most discussion about the merits of buying organically produced food centres on whether it is more nutritious or less harmful than industrially produced food. But there is a far more important reason for spending a little extra to buy organic food. It concerns the soil.
The year 2015 has been designated as the International Year of Soils. Soil is essential for human life, since 95% of our food come from soil. (Presumably the other 5% comes from the sea.) It can take 1000 years for just 1 cm of topsoil to form yet, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s ‘Save our souls toolkit’, the equivalent of 30 football pitches of fertile soil is being lost every minute!
Good soil contains a high proportion of organic matter, which sustains an incredible variety of living organisms. It also enables the soil to absorb and retain water, minimizing the risk of flooding and enabling the life within it to withstand drought. Furthermore, the organic matter in soil consists mainly of carbon, so the more organic matter there is in the soil, the less there is in the atmosphere to cause global warming.
Industrial food production is destroying soil and denuding it of organic matter. It relies on chemicals to fertilize the soil and to kill weeds, pests and diseases. Organic food production, on the other hand, maintains soil fertility naturally by crop rotation that includes temporary grassland; by using nitrogen-fixing crops such as red clover, peas and beans; growing green winter crops to protect the soil from erosion; and returning animal waste to the soil as manure. It does not involve the use of chemicals that damage the ecosystem.
What are the results of industrial food production?
· According to a UK government report our soils have been ‘degraded’ because of ‘intensive agricultural production’ and 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil are lost each year.
· Arable soils in the UK contain only half the amount of organic matter that organically managed arable soils contain.
· The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported in 2014 that invertebrates including worms had declined by around 45% over the previous 35 years.
· During the last 70 years, when farmers have been spreading toxic chemicals over British agricultural soil, bees and other wild pollinators have been disappearing. The populations of many birds, from skylarks and tree sparrows to corn buntings and yellowhammers, have declined by 90%!
· The government subsidized planting of maize, supposedly to help offset carbon emissions, is resulting in significant soil erosion, particularly when planted on steeply sided slopes. This is because it is harvested in autumn when the ground is often wet, and the subsequently bare topsoil is then easily washed away by any further heavy rainfall.
It is unlikely that the government, particularly a Conservative one, will take any effective action to prevent or reverse the degradation and destruction of the soil on which our lives and the lives of any future generation depend. The only way that this will happen is through a return to organic farming, and the only way that this will happen is for people like you and me to support organic farming by spending a little extra on organically produced food.
But maybe we don’t have to spend extra. If we consumed less starchy carbohydrate, sugar and alcohol, most of us would be healthier and we could buy organic food without any increase in our weekly shopping bill at all!
 Where not referenced, the facts presented in this blog are taken from ‘Soil Matters: Deep Trouble’, published earlier this year by the Soil Association.
 Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiUU), Switzerland, October 2012.
 The IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation, with almost 1,300 government and NGO Members and more than 15,000 volunteer experts in 185 countries.