Soil loss awareness and some easy ways you can help.
We are losing the stuff that shapes our world. Soil loss is impacting the foundation of life. Without soil, we are all pretty much dust in the wind, my friends.
When the United Nations declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils, it wasn’t because the world’s scientists had suddenly decided that climate change wasn’t a big enough deal anymore. The declaration is an attempt to raise awareness of the rapidly growing global problem of topsoil loss due to human activity.
Healthy soil provides us with the food, fuel, and fiber we need in our everyday lives. Soil filters our water, and is the literal ground beneath the health of countless global ecosystems. Healthy soil is essential for healthy people and a healthy planet, but we are only starting to pay enough attention to the soil. When the UN declared 2015 to be the Year of Soils, They acknowledged this global environmental problem that needs to be confronted sooner rather than later. Once soil is gone – it’s totally gone.
While running out of something as seemingly inexhaustible as the world’s topsoil may seem impossible, we are losing soil far faster than we can replenish it, and soil is essential for our survival. The Land Institute likens soil is essentially as non-renewable as oil, yet we treat soil as though it will be around forever. Over the past 150 years, half of the world’s topsoil has been lost due to human activity. If we continue down the road we are currently on, the world’s topsoil could run out in as little as 60 years. This silent slipping away of topsoil is actually one of humanity’s biggest environmental threats: more than 99.7% of our food comes from the soil, with only .3% coming from the oceans and other aquatic ecosystems.
A combination of agricultural practices, overgrazing, deforestation, and conversion of farmland to housing tracts and concrete has accelerated topsoil loss around the world. This loss takes a variety of different forms, the most serious culprits being erosion (when topsoil is washed away by the wind and rain) and degradation, or a decline in soil quality.
What is topsoil, anyway, and why does it matter?
Topsoil is the thin layer of dirt loose enough for plants to put down roots. Topsoil contains all the nutrients we need to grow our crops. Soil literally shapes our world – it’s the source of the green on this blue-green space ball of ours. Soil grows our crops and feeds the animals that keep us fed and, well, living. From playing a significant role in climate regulation and the carbon cycle (and therefore intimately connected to climate change), to filtering our water and providing protection from droughts and floods, soil plays a number of critical roles in making our planet livable.
Soil is often referred to by scientists as the skin of our planet – it is an active, complex, living ecosystem. Literally forming the foundation for the rest of terrestrial life on our planet. Soil is as complex and diverse as the multitude of lifeforms that grow out of it, dig through it, and run around on top of it. Different living things nourish different types of soil microbes when they die, so the ground beneath any given area is going to reflect what is growing (or not growing) out of it. There is much more going on underground than we often take into consideration with modern farming practices. We are only starting to learn about and understand the complexities of soil.
When we’re digging around in soil, we tend to assume there’s not much more than meets the eye – yet a single spoonful of healthy soil is actually teeming with life. Good, fertile soil contains billions of beneficial microbes and bacteria, with a single gram of healthy topsoil containing anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 different microbial species. The soil microbes are responsible for breaking down dead plant and animal material and helping to recycle the nutrients that were locked up inside back into the soil. This means that a heathy soil microbe community is essential for heathy soil.
When humans transform an area of land from its natural state of forest or grassland to one for agricultural production, they change what is growing above ground. This in turn changes the invisible ecosystem beneath the surface. The same holds true when you rip up native shrubs and plants in your yard and replace them with the handful of ornamental varieties popular in suburban neighborhoods.
Just as we have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with the billions of different microbes that call our body home, plant roots have an intricate and extensive relationship with the soil microbes that call them home.
Soil degradation is caused by anything from increases in salinity (salty soil grows no food), loss of fertility (fewer nutrients available for plant growth), and compaction (loss of the spaces between dirt particles that allows water to seep through and roots to grow). Plants grow by putting out roots into the topsoil to stabilize themselves, holding the soil in place with their roots while pulling nutrients out of that soil to fuel their growth. Having no topsoil means there is no place for a plant to put down roots. If a seed does manage to sprout, there are no nutrients to feed it. Erosion occurs when topsoil is exposed to the vagaries of nature – such as when annual crops are harvested, removing the roots that hold the soil in place. The soil is either blown away by the wind or washed away by rain or water applied to fields during irrigation.
How we’re losing it
While erosion has always been a challenge for farmers, the heavy equipment and chemicals used in modern agricultural production greatly accelerates the rate at which topsoil is lost. Simply put, modern agricultural methods take more from the soil than they put back. With a focus on maximizing yield through the use of chemical inputs and technology, modern agricultural methods quickly deplete the soil of valuable nutrients and greatly accelerate erosion.
Without getting into all of the gritty details, agriculture in general – and modern agriculture to an extreme – breaks the cycling of nutrients between plants, animals, and the soil that supports them. Essentially modern agriculture is like a clingy person in an unhealthy relationship, taking significantly more than it gives: scientists estimate that it would take between 200 to 1,000 years to form an inch of soil under current agricultural conditions.
When we plant only one crop for acres and acres – as is common with modern agricultural production – we greatly simplify what’s taking root in the ground for soil microbial communities to build up around, which then changes the composition of these subterranean microbial communities. Wen we dose those rows of genetically-identical plants with a cocktail of chemical herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, we drown a toxic deluge in whatever microbial communities remain.
As the global demand for meat increases, overgrazing has added to the problem. Overgrazing occurs when too many livestock are taken out to pasture in an area for too long. Livestock over-stress the land which then can’t give the grasses and plants enough time to grow back and hold the soil down. The same thing happens when tracts of land are cleared of trees for human use, or paved over to make room for our houses and roads.
Saving the soil
While that crumbly brown stuff outside may not look very lovable at first, the time is here for us to look at soil a little differently and start to see the stuff that shapes our worls for what it is – the source of the food that gives us life. Even the most hardened city dweller can’t help but take delight in the smell and texture of healthy soil. Healthy soil has a certain silky texture to it – at once a denseness and a lightness, as good soil is as much about the air between the bits of organic matter as it is about the rich, dark crumbs themselves. Healthy soil has the intoxicating smell of life, at once faint yet pungent, we call it “earthy”.
Dirt is different.
Dirt is dead – it’s that hard, dusty patch between the corner of the driveway and the sidewalk, devoid of all life. Even the hardiest of crab grasses can’t be found in a patch of dirt. Devoid of nutrients, packed so tight that water rolls off and the roots of seedlings can’t penetrate through to grow, dirt is soil no more. Dirt’s not pretty – it’s limited to what you see and will only ever turn into dust or mud. Soil, on the other hand, is beautiful – it is mutable into any number of life forms that can grow out of it, or feed off of what does.
The definition of a problem ends up defining the solutions you see as possible. Western thought – a fountain of cultural and societal knowledge that has given us such great things as modern agriculture, national parks, and democracy – tends to separate the world around us into very distinct places: there is Where Humans Live, the Wilderness, and then the rough little in-between patches of Where We Enjoy Nature, and Where We Grow Our Food. Mixing of these places is never seen as being fully possible. We see the problem of topsoil loss of as being largely about the Where We Grow Our Food part of the world, with a good bit of help by the extension of Where Humans Live (and no food is grown, and most certainly nature does NOT live, except in small patches).
Rethinking the boundaries we impose on the world around us may help us see the problem in a different light and open up the possibilities of new solutions. Different approaches to how we define agricultural production and how we see the land available for producing our food will inevitably cause us to see the problem of soil erosion – and all of its possible solutions – in a different light. Agricultural production such as permaculture and agroforestry approach food production in a different way. These approaches see the land where we grow food and where we live as not being inherently separate and offering different solutions to the critical problem of the loss of topsoil.
The first step toward healthy soil is being aware of the problem and seeing how it is connected to your everyday life through the food on your plate. Being more consciously aware of how your everyday purchases either contribute to the problem, or help lead the way for solutions, is the next step. The Eat Well Guide can help you find more sustainable food options in your neighborhood.
Seeing the little patch of land outside of your front door or in your backyard in a different light can make a world of difference. You can help be part of the solution through your landscape design. Start to reimagine the look of the places where we live and grow our food.