Our soil is dying

We generally take soil for granted. We believe it will always be there and always able to grow what we need. But the soil is actually a living ecosystem and we treat it pretty badly. Actually, the world’s soil is dying.

As I’ve been researching various things, I’ve seen comments about how the soil of the Earth needs our attention and we’re running out of usable soil. This might sound a bit strange because it’s easy for us to just think that soil is everywhere and there’s no way we could run out of it. The reports talk about rendering the top soil infertile through artificial pesticides and fertilizers as well as massive soil erosion though deforestation. Over the past year to eighteen months, three documentaries that I’ve watched have clearly discussed the problems we are causing for our soil – One Man One Cow One Planet, Dirt and Fresh.

Now, very recently there has been a report warning that we might have only 60 years of top soil left. Our soil is dying. That’s a real surprise. Let’s have a look at these issues more closely.

our soil is dying - Erosion, destruction soil environment

One of my vivid memories of watching the documentary One Man One Cow One Planet was when Peter Proctor was being driven along a road in India and they stopped to look at a barren field. He walked over to it and picked up some of the soil and showed how hard and lifeless it was. He said this is happening all over the world and is a result of so called “modern” farming that uses harsh artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Essentially, the modern farming practices kill the soil. Literally, our soil is dying.

I saw this documentary over a year ago, and I also saw Dirt and Fresh but I didn’t get spurred into action. However, just a few days ago a headline caught my attention and now I feel like I must do something.

Only 60 years of soil left?

The theory that we might only have 60 years of soil left has been around for a while, but it’s only come to my attention recently. In a Reuter’s news article in December 2014, some interesting comments like these are made;

  • generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years
  • about a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded
  • causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming
  • ninety-five percent of our food comes from the soil
  • soils play a key role in absorbing carbon and filtering water
  • we are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming
  • “Organic (farming) may not be the only solution but it’s the single best (option) I can think of.”

A lot of people worry about running out of oil and gas but it looks like we’re much more likely to run out of soil first.

It must be time for all of us to become aware of this issue and do something about it.

our soil is dying - bare field

Near to my home, a bare field ready to be planted with a new crop. This always seems wrong to me. Nature certainly knows how to grow things and I never see Nature stripping a field bare like this. It can’t be right. Some rain will wash away some of the soil. We just have to look at what nature does to learn. Nature always leaves root structure in place.

I have done some digging to see if this scenario could really be true and pretty easily found an article written in Time Magazine in 2012 called What If the World’s Soil Runs Out? This article reinforces the seriousness of the issue. Here are some of its quotes;

  • 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded
  • 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone
  • Even the well-maintained farming land in Europe, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates
  • Soil is a living material: if you hold a handful of soil, there will be more microorganisms in there than the number of people who have ever lived on the planet
  • Crop breeding is exacerbating this situation. Modern wheat varieties, for example, have half the micronutrients of older strains, and it’s pretty much the same for fruit and vegetables. The focus has been on breeding high-yield crops which can survive on degraded soil, so it’s hardly surprising that 60% of the world’s population is deficient in nutrients like iron. If it’s not in the soil, it’s not in our food.
  • I find it quite ironic that while the Mars Curiosity Rover is poking around looking for life in Martian soil, we’re in the process of extinguishing life in our own.
our soil is dying - horses eating all the grass

Near to my home, some horses left in a small field. Notice how they’ve eaten the grass so the field is almost bare? Now the soil could easily be eroded. Nature never does this. Horses are never restricted to a small paddock in Nature.

And the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) page on Soil Erosion and Degradation states;

  • Soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth. It is comprised of countless species that create a dynamic and complex ecosystem and is among the most precious resources to humans.
  • Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years.

I recommend watching the documentaries Dirt and Fresh as they show the amazing wonder of soil. Soil really is alive. There’s a whole universe in there.

However, from all the articles and reports above, it’s pretty clear that our soil is dying. It needs our help. We need to help it so it can continue to help us.

To this end, the United Nations has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils. On their home page for this they say;

“Our soils are in danger because of expanding cities, deforestation, unsustainable land use and management practices, pollution, overgrazing and climate change. The current rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity to meet the needs of future generations.  The promotion of sustainable soil and land management is central to ensuring a productive food system, improved rural livelihoods and a healthy environment.”

our soil is dying - young rapeseed crops

A young rapeseed crop near my home. It’s a monoculture that’s most often genetically modified. Horrible. The crop is particularly unappealing as well. Pity rapeseed oil is in a lot of our fuel and in almost every product available in regular supermarkets. I can’t find it in products from organic supermarkets – not much wonder why.

There is an urgent need for awareness here, and it’s not like we haven’t been aware of this for a long time. Here are a few pertinent quotes about soil;

“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.” – Charles E. Kellogg, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1938

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

“Nature has endowed the Earth with glorious wonders and vast resources that man may use for his own ends. Regardless of our tastes or our way of living, there are none that present more variations to tax our imagination than the soil, and certainly none so important to our ancestors, to ourselves, and to our children” – Charles Kellogg, The Soils That Support Us, 1956

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold, 1949. A Sand County almanac.

“To be a successful farmer one must first know the nature of the soil.” – Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 400 B.C.

“If the soil is destroyed, then our liberty of action and choice are gone …” – W.C. Lowdermilk, 1953.

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” – Leonardo da Vinci

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Support Organic Farming

Supporting organic and biodynamic farming (also see this page) is a good way to help protect our soil. Biodynamic agriculture “is a method of farming that aims to treat the farm as a living system which interacts with the environment, to build healthy living soil, and to produce food that nourishes and vitalises and helps to develop humanity.” Organic and biodynamic forming both prohibit the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms and use sustainable methods of farming, like people used to use by default over a century ago. The documentaries One Man One Cow One PlanetDirt and Fresh give good introductions to such farming practices.

To support these types of farming, we have to be prepared to eat organic foods. It’s as simple as that. If we only ate organic foods and completely avoided products that are not organic, then there’s a whole lot more hope for our soil.

Want to solve the soil problem? It’s easy. Eat only organic. I know it might be hard to follow through on, but the way to greatly help our soil is clear.

All we need is love

Sorry to steal this lovely line from the Beatles, but this sums up the situation so well. The world needs a booster shot of love. We need more love between people, more love of Nature, more love of the planet and more love of our soil. If we saw our world, including the soil, as the unfathomable, glorious gift that it is, then there’s no way we could treat it with the disdain that we do.

We have allowed ourselves to focus on profits and greed. It is fear that drives us to worry that we might not have enough. We fear that others might have enough and we’ll be left short. Then greed pushes us to find ways to make more and more profits. Fear and greed push us to do things that we would never, in good conscious, consider. Things like preparing a misleading advertising campaigns so that corporations can make more sales. Somehow we manage to convince ourselves this is ok.

It’s not ok!

If we felt love for our world and all the people in it, then news that our soil is dying would call us to action. We would be compelled to find a way to help our precious soil. So, feel the love! Be concerned for the health of our living soil that is in trouble. Support organic and biodynamic farming practices and seek even better ways to help our soil. As with everything, the solution starts with us. It’s not someone else’s problem, it’s ours.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Related Links – Our Soil is Dying

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