Is Healthy Soil the Key to Our Future As a Species?
Here’s why we should all care about soil health and the state of agriculture today…
Unless you’re a farmer or a gardener, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the soil. It’s just there – under our feet, a nuisance to be tracked into the house by pets and small children. Most of us don’t think a whole lot about the fact that we are only alive because of soil. Practically all of our food – regardless of what form it comes in – depends on the soil at some point in its lifecycle.
Unfortunately, our soil is suffering, and if we don’t adopt more sustainable practices when it comes to agriculture, the very future of our species may be in jeopardy. It may sound dramatic, but it’s the truth.
While America used to be a place famed for its rich and fertile topsoil, the introduction of the plow and other large-scale industrial farming techniques and chemicals have changed all that.
Due to these practices, more than 50% of America’s topsoil is gone. The result is not pretty. To maintain enough fertility to grow crops, farmers now have to use more and more fertilizer (and water). Since the soil is no longer healthy and full of organic matter, it cannot absorb and hold water as it should, which results in runoff, leading to polluted water supplies, as well as further erosion and depletion of the soil. It is a vicious cycle, and will lead to a bleak future if we don’t make changes – and soon.
As this excellent article explains:
For generations, soil has been treated almost as a backdrop — not much more than a medium for holding plants while fertilizer and herbicides help them grow. The result, over the years, has been poorer and drier topsoil that doesn’t hold on to nutrients or water. The impact of this degradation isn’t just on farmers, but extends to Americans’ health. Dust blowing off degraded fields leads to respiratory illness in rural areas; thousands of people are exposed to drinking water with levels of pesticides at levels that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed to be of concern. The drinking water of more than 210 million Americans is polluted with nitrate, a key fertilizer chemical that has been linked to developmental problems in children and poses cancer risks in adults. And thanks to some modern farming techniques, soil degradation is releasing carbon—which becomes carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas—instead of holding on to it. In fact, the United Nations considers soil degradation one of the central threats to human health in the coming decades for those very reasons.
It is obvious that something must change, and a number of farmers and researchers are starting to realize the importance of this problem:
Now, some farmers and soil scientists are realizing that for the health of both people and farms, the most important thing you can do is look at soil differently—seeing topsoil as a living thing itself, which can be tended and even improved. Good soil is alive with a host of delicate organisms, many of them microscopic, producing structure and nutrients. As long as they’re thriving, soil can better absorb and retain water and feed plants and control pests.
As scientists have learned more about this nearly invisible ecosystem, the soil microbiome, they’ve begun to realize that promoting the health of those organisms is key to solving a host of problems in agriculture.
“In the last five years, there has been an awakening of the realization of how critical that life in the soil is to our life,’’ said Ron Nichols, a spokesman for USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. “[It’s] what really enables this whole synthesis process—to be able to cycle carbon from the air into the soil that makes those other nutrients available to plants, that in turn provides us with oxygen and the food that we eat.”
Promoting soil health comes down to three basic practices: Make sure the soil is covered with plants at all times, diversify what it grows and don’t disrupt it. What this means in practice is rotating crops, so fields aren’t trying to support the same plant year after year. And it means using techniques like “cover-cropping”–planting a secondary plant like grasses, legumes or vegetables–between rows of crops or on other exposed soil instead of leaving it bare. Using a cover crop protects the soil, reduces erosion, encourages biodiversity and returns nutrients like nitrogen to the earth.
Currently, agriculture really isn’t very good at doing any of these things. Even organic farming doesn’t do them perfectly, as many organic farmers still till the soil to help control weeds and eroding soil can still cause fertilizer runoff, even if that fertilizer is compost. That said, organic certification does contain rules for crop rotation, and more farmers are beginning to move towards more holistic soil practices.
We have a long way to go, and change won’t come easy, but it is necessary.
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