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Soil's unknowable wonders could ensure the survival of our species

image of soil falling off a garden spade

A few weeks ago, we found this article on the Guardian website, and it's frankly excellent so we have left it in our Instagram bio ever since so that people can find it, read it and share it. The numbers and facts in the opening couple of paragraphs alone are enough to incite a 'woaahhh' from even the most soil-indifferent audience.

We often have conversations about soil, but we realise we might be in a biased minority, working in the area of microbes and agriculture. Is the importance of soil health something that you have been made aware of? We think it is a hugely overlooked element in the world's climate, food and sustainability crises. We thoroughly recommend reading the whole article, but if you're in a hurry, we have pulled out three interesting points, and why we think they're so important, as an overview for you: 

1 Take a step back and you will see something that transforms our understanding of life on Earth. 

As microbe enthusiasts we love the sense of excitement and wonder that opens this article. The microscopic world of microbes truly is weird and wonderful, fascinating and incredibly important to the health of us and our planet. Reading something that conveys the wonder of this, and the gravitas of how important this field of science can be is really encouraging. This particularly eye-catching statement in the article specifically refers to the symbiotic relationship between plants and the millions of bacteria - or microbes - that reside in the rhizosphere (the area surrounding its roots.) Monbiot notes that 'The similarities between the rhizosphere and the human gut, where bacteria also live in astonishing numbers, are uncanny - both involve a mutually beneficial relationship between subject and microbe community, supporting life and immune systems'.

Microbz founder Jeff Allen talks about how crucial microbes are at every stage in the cycle of life, which is present everywhere in nature, in humans and plants alike. 'Microbes have an intelligence that will assist what is growing and also assist what is decaying. They were the first form of life on this planet and if we're not careful they'll be the last.

Seeing the world from this perspective, paying attention to the microscopic world that we - as part of nature - are so amalgamated with, might indeed change our understanding of life on Earth, and hopefully help tackle some of the issues we're facing in order to sustain it.

2  The loss of a soil's resilience can happen incrementally and subtly. We might scarcely detect it until a shock pushes the complex underground system past its tipping point.™

An alarming statement. No-one likes the idea of realising something too late, but that's a very real possibility when it comes to many elements that contribute to the environmental crises. Soil health is one of those elements which we cannot afford to overlook any longer. We depend on soil for 99% of our food, so if soil health declines rapidly we will struggle to feed people. Soil health all over the world, including in the UK, is in crisis. Intensive farming, compaction, over fertilisation and pesticides have impacted the health of soil to the point of destruction. The dirt beneath our feet is getting poorer and poorer. In 2017 Michael Gove, then Environment Secretary, said, 'Countries can withstand coups d'etat, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.'

The solution can be boiled down to a simple message = Improve the soil: improve the crops: improve our health. Soil structure improvements mean stronger root growth and greater water retention giving plants the ability to cope with droughts and a healthy rhizosphere helps plants survive floods. There are some promising solutions on the horizon, but we need to act fast.

3 It isn't fertiliser; it's an inoculant that stimulates microbes. The carbon in the wood encourages the bacteria and fungi that bring the soil back to life.

This is from a section about farmer Tolly (Iain Tolhurst) who over many years of study and experimentation managed to cultivate a thriving land of crops from what was initially dismissed as undesirable 'building rubble.' Tolly found that the key to his success has been strengthening and diversifying the relationships in the rhizosphere - the plant's external gut. By keeping roots in the soil, raising the number of plant species and adding just the right amount of carbon, he seems to have encouraged bacteria to build their catacombs in his stony ground, improving the soil's structure and helping his plants to grow.

This story is an amazing example of someone leaning into the world of microbes to yield dramatic and highly effective change. We believe that adding microbes back into any stage of the life cycle will strengthen the whole process, and we're working hard to see solutions like this rolled out on a larger scale to improve the agricultural landscape.

At microbz we offer solutions for individuals to use at home to improve their little patch of Earth in the form of products like microbz soil conditioner. We're also working on a larger scale with farmers and landowners to introduce beneficial microbes back in to the soil. We believe that by adding effective microorganisms to soil, plants and manure, the farming industry can accelerate soil regeneration and bring soils back from the brink of destruction whilst supporting their businesses and the planet. Microbes enable the circularity of agriculture. Using products with effective microorganisms supports gardeners and farmers to use minimal external inputs, close nutrient loops, regenerate soils and protect wildlife. We believe that the future is underground, the future is in soil biology. And however small a patch of soil we may occupy, each one of us can start there.    

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