- McKinley Smoot
What You Love Depends on Soil
Soil Makes Your Life
In an average day, how many times do we think about what is beneath our feet? Or beneath the buildings in which we live? I must admit, in normal circumstances there are far more interesting things to think about other than dirt; an average modern day human has a lot to keep their attention on whether that be their job, their family, their phones, entertainment, or our health. There are pandemics, food shortages, war mongering, and extremely complex social and political upheavals. We tend to forget that these things are constantly cycling despite our attempts to change them. Unfortunately, there is another cycle that seems to span too long beyond the average human life. It’s called Soil Degradation, and many of our great civilizations have crumbled thanks to poor soil husbandry practices. This is avoidable, and me writing this article is an attempt to make people aware that your way of life is based upon what is beneath our feet.
We have relationships that we love and families that mean the world to us. Human beings have created works of art that leave people speechless and change societies and culture. We have made unbelievable breakthroughs in scientific achievement through an unmatched dedication to knowledge and progress. Despite the possibility of global nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, we stayed our hands. Human nature and creativity is magnificent. However, it can also be ruthlessly violent and vicious. The causes of these traits are myriad, but how often do we presence what makes all of this possible?
Food availability. Metabolized energy from nutrient dense foods whether they be plants or animals is what makes the world go round for all of life. Life seems to consume life. Due to decades of food security in our country and others, there seems to be a somewhat dismissal or ignorant attitude when it comes to our food. Many of us don’t know what is to be truly hungry. It’s too easy to forget that approximately 37 million people struggle with hunger in the US, 11 million of them being children. But in the US we have yet to experience wide spread famine.
Since 1991 there have been approximately been 36.5 million deaths attributed to famine. Since 1948 there have been approximately 241.5 million deaths attributed to famine, and those numbers are based on the lower estimates. If you would like to venture down the dark path of famines before that time click here. It is impossible to pinpoint a direct cause of any of these famines, but soil degradation has turned out to be a significant contributing factor to fallen civilizations or struggling nations. Years of soil mismanagement and farming practices contributed to economic instability which led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Mayan Civilization, the Chaco Civilization, the Phoenicians, and ancient Mesopotamia. Don’t think that this only happens to ancient civilizations. During 1930’s the dust bowl affected nearly 100,000,000 square acres in the heart of the US. That’s over 248,000 square miles which is nearly the size of Texas.
Why does this happen and how does it affect us? Most erosion on arable lands occurs due plowing the soil. Plowing has occurred across the planet for thousands of years. Anyone who has had a garden knows that plowing is excellent for creating a nice fluffy substrate for whatever you want to grow that season. What most people don’t realize is when you up turn the soil millions if not billions of life forms have been eliminated. Unbeknownst to us those are the organisms that make fertile land possible. And beyond that we have created a layer of compacted soil below the depth of the plow that creates a blockage for oxygen to get beneficial aerobic microorganisms. Those organisms along with plant roots hold our soil together. Without those organisms you get dirt and Dust. The American Dustbowl occurred in area where at one point was one of the productive grasslands on the planet. Herds of buffalo 15 miles long and 5 miles thick were supported on those grasslands along with millions of Elk, deer, pronghorn, and wild horses. The roots of those perennial grasses reached up to 15 feet deep. Those grasses, like any plant, took in CO2 from the atmosphere and energy from the sun to push something known as a carbon exudates down into the soil to feed a vast army of microbes ranging from bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and microarthropods in exchange for essential nutrients the plant needs to grow. Those organisms created structure in the soil which increased soil stability, and water holding capacity.
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave anyone who was willing to homestead unsettled land up to 160 acres. Before the invention of the tractor, not many farmers could plow more than 60-80 acres of that land with a draft animal in a year. As the tractor became more widely available a farmer could plow more than 60 acres a day. By the time the windstorms of 1930 hit most of that soil had been converted to dirt and devastated the inhabitants of our heartland and greatly exacerbating the effects of the Great Depression. The plow, surprisingly, has had an undue affect on our ability to sustainably manage soil. It is as if we are mining instead of farming our soil for its nutrients. To this day we are losing 23 billion tons of soil each year.
Without a healthy soil ecology plants and animals cannot get the proper balance of nutrients from the soil. So, we add inorganic soluble fertilizers (salts) to make sure that our plants grow. We also apply pesticides and herbicides for unwanted guests that the desired plants cannot resist due to a lacking biodiversity in the soil. Inorganic fertilizers, the classic N P K, are inorganic salts applied to the ground in quantities no plant could ever absorb and the vast majority of them are leached into streams and rivers. The Mississippi River Delta is now known as a dead zone the size of Rhode Island due to the application and leaching of inorganic fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides applied to our formerly fertile lans.
The mining of the soils has led to fueling the industrial revolution all the way up to the present day in the information age. It has allowed us to pursue and accomplish great things. However, it has allowed us to become unaware of how the things we eat are grown, and what that process is requires of the soil.
Participating in the raising of crops or animals is one of the most beautiful things this life has to offer. Becoming aware of soil life, birds, insects, and wildlife leave us feeling connected to the earth from which we come and consume in order live. Thomas Jefferson once said “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.” I tend to agree with him. Unfortunately, about 1% of our population farms and produces food for this nation. Enormous amounts of specialty goods are imported from other countries. This has left our food supply chain highly complex and distant, and as we are seeing now, highly vulnerable.
Food has become a small expense in our lives, but somehow our health as a nation has declined. Food prices used to be double what they were 40 years ago. Now our healthcare cost has doubled of the last 40 years. Everything we love and enjoy is based the availability of calories. Take a moment to think about what you love doing or what you aspire to do. If food was not available to us, we would no longer have the opportunity to think about or explore those things.
New and old innovative ways of agriculture are catching on throughout the world. No till drills that seed crops directly into the ground with minimal tillage are being employed. Cover crops, which are plants that are seeded in order to keep the soil covered has improved soil life and control erosion. Innovative adaptive multi-paddock grazing is being employed to mimic ancient herds to help reinvigorate the land. Change is upon us in agriculture. But it is up to you, the consumer to know and be aware of how your food comes to you, and it is you who dictates what method will stay by who you choose to give your money to. Our modern nations are not immune to soil degradation. Our technological prowess has stacked the chips against in the world of agriculture. But it can be used for good to restore it as well.
Conflict: The author of this article is an Accreditted Professional for the Savory Institute, which is an organization that addresses solutions to deal with desertification, climate change, and food and water security.