It is something which is at once amazingly powerful and yet incredibly fragile. Without it we would not exist. Indeed, without it there would be no life on Earth.
What is it?
Soil. The living skin of planet Earth.
This thin, fragile layer on the surface of our planet is literally teeming with life. Grab a small handful of soil and what you hold in your hand will contain more microorganisms than the total number of human beings who have ever lived.
Soil is an essential source of food for the plants we rely upon and it performs other vital, life sustaining functions, for example retaining and filtering water and trapping gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting them into food for the organisms to which the soil plays host.
For just an inch of soil to form naturally can take up to a thousand years, but we are currently losing that precious, fragile living skin at a far greater rate than it is being replaced.
Modern farming methods, including deforestation, over-ploughing and overgrazing have left the soil vulnerable to erosion by wind and sun.
Factor in the millions of tons of poison we pour onto and into the soil in the form of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers, and it becomes easier to understand why it has been estimated that on current trends the world has about 60 years of topsoil left. During that time scale, continued soil degradation means we are on course to produce less and less food against a backdrop of a human population that is growing inexorably.
The maths simply don’t stack up.
All is not lost, however. There is a way to save our soil, to start to reduce the impact of soil degradation and loss on future generations.
Central to the rescue plan must be the phasing out of those disastrous agricultural practices that have brought us to the edge of the precipice. Simultaneously we must do far more to encourage organic farming practices, which will put life and health back into our soil.
Another crucial change we need to make is to reduce our dependence on meat. Not only is it the single biggest contributor to global warming of all human activities, meat production also takes a huge amount of nutrients from the soil. Where it has led to overgrazing and deforestation, the meat industry has also degraded and destroyed once healthy soils. Livestock farming creates a huge volume of animal waste which is often not ploughed back into the soil, where it would at least help replenish nutrients and soil structure.
To encourage these changes, we need to start factoring in the true environmental cost of producing the food that we eat.
Food that is grown using chemicals that damage the soil, or which pollutes our water sources, should include the cost of that damage in its price. Subsidies should be given to farming practices which nurture and develop the soil instead of – as now – being given to those who destroy it.
At a stroke these measures would make healthy, organic food much cheaper than non-organic. It will increase demand for organic food, encourage more farmers to convert to organic farming practices, and it will allow us to halt and then start to repair the damage we have done to our planet’s living skin.
Right, rant over. Time to put on the stripey apron.
This week’s recipe is an example of how good wholesome vegan comfort food can be. Combining seasonal mushrooms with freshly harvested celery, carrots and leeks, this gorgeous pie is rich in flavour and deeply satisfying.
If you’d prefer to omit the ale, use the same quantity of vegetable stock in its place.
portobello and wild mushroom and ale pie
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
250 g organic Portobello mushrooms, sliced
20 g dried porcini mushrooms
1 large carrot, sliced
1 stick celery, sliced
1 leek, sliced
400 ml can organic chopped tomatoes
200 ml good quality ale, or vegetable stock
1 tsp grain mustard
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
½ tsp sea salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the topping
600 g organic potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
15 g fresh chives, finely chopped
75 ml extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
1. For the topping, place the potato in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until the potato is cooked through. Drain, then mash until smooth or put through a potato ricer. Add the olive oil, salt and chives and stir to combine thoroughly. Set to one side.
2. Soak the dried porcini in 200 ml hot water for 30 minutes until soft, then pour the porcini and their soaking liquid into a blender and process until smooth.
3. Put a large pan over a medium heat and add the oil. When hot, add the onion and cook for five minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the carrot, celery, leek, salt, thyme and garlic and cook for a further 3 minutes, then add the sliced portobello mushroom and continue to cook for 3 minutes more, stirring frequently.
4. Add the porcini mixture, smoked paprika, soy sauce, chopped tomatoes, mustard and the ale and stir to combine. Reduce the heat. Simmer, stirring every so often, for a further 25 minutes, by which time the sauce will have reduced and become thicker and richly flavoured. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Set to one side to cool.
5. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (400°F, gas mark 6). Pour the mushroom filling into a pie dish. Carefully spread the potato and chive mixture over the top. Place on a baking tray in the pre-heated oven and cook for 25 minutes or until the potato mash on top is crisp and golden.