The Dirt on Dirt

The soil that we depend on to plant our crops and sustain life through plant growth and oxygen production is being quickly destroyed.  Soil degradation may be one of the most important issues facing our world in the coming years.  By the year 2030 estimates show the population exceeding 8.3 billion, that is of concern when we are already experiencing food shortages in the current year.  At the least shortages cause significant price increases, in worst case scenarios food shortages can incite riots like they already have in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  The UN estimates that to support 8.3 billion people farmers will have to produce 30% more grain than they do today.  Unfortunately, as we demand more from our soil and “improve” farming techniques, we are accelerating the process of degradation of our soil.  The major factors contributing to our loss of soil are erosion, compaction, and pollution.  People are choosing to buy organic food in ever expanding amounts because study after study shows that the nutrient content is better and the chemical residues of conventionally grown food can be damaging to health.  Sustainable organic techniques can and do produce equal and even better yields while supplying more nutritious food.

Big Picture

The biggest study ever done on soil integrity came from the ISRIC – World Soil Information in 1991 and stated that we had degraded 7.5 million square miles of land and that we are rapidly degrading a land mass the size of the United States and Canada combined.  In the developing world, water and wind erosion are rapidly causing desertification.Bottom line: when topsoil is gone, no plant life thrives and people run out of food.  Attempting to farm improper land (i.e., land on steep hills, formerly forested land, etc), and planing monocultures have left vast stretches of earth barren.  In wealthy nations our imminent concerns are pollution and compaction.  We have the money to continue to force production from our eroded and damaged soils with ever more expensive chemicals and massive production equipement.  We use heavy machinery to break up hard soil and dangerous chemicals to replenish just enough nutrients to make a plant green and then do it over and over again.  The type of soil degradation does not allow for the ease of water absorbtion and harbors very little organic matter and microbial life, the very things essential to healthy food and high yields.  The term “cutting off our nose to spite our face” comes to mind.  The massive machines compact the loose aerated soil thereby forming a nearly impenetrable surface requiring more heavy machinery and water to break up. Even if plants aren’t sprayed directly, the chemicals sprayed to kill pests and weeds harm the microbes in the soil essential to the conversion of organic matter into humus from which the plants get their full complement of food/essential nutrients.  Synthetic fertilizer salts are applied to boost certain nutrients to make up for the lack of humus.  The soil is often polluted by more than just the herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, fertilizer salts and additives.  Industrial and agricultural runoff accumulates and ends up back in our soil or in our waterways.  These pollutants seep their way into or onto our food, and perhaps, even more importantly, they destroy the microbial ecosystem of our oil.  Without the microbes and beneficial fungus for crops, our yields continue to go down and our food is lacking many of the micronutrients that we have come to rely on for health.  

With less nutrition in our food and more of our cropland being farmed (and subsidized) for unhealthy processed food ingredients, we are losing the battle to be healthy even when we make good eating choices.  Even though eating a whole, fresh apple is the wisest choice, the bonus of pesticides, and the lack of actual nutrition in that apple make the choice less appealling than ever.  N-P-K fertilizer satls (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium – aka Micracle Grow types of fertilizers) work well to green a plant and force it to grow rapidly.  The three N-P-K elements are the major drivers of plant development.  What they do not provide are the hundreds and maybe thousands of other elements and nutrients that a healthy functioning soil ecosystem can give.  When the nutrients are eventually used up and only the big three salts are replaced, we get a large green plants with far reduced amounts of micronutrients and minerals.  Without the raw materials in the soil, the plant cannot make all those vitamins and phytonutrients that we need in our diet.  The solution is sustainable and responsible organic farming techniques that feel the soil microbes with protein based organic matter which is converted into the nutrients including N-P-K that plants need to grow into full healthy living organisms with a full complement of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.  The solution taken far too often when a land becomes deficient and hard to cultivate is to use ever more powerful chemicals and machinery to force production.  What the soil needs in order to be healthy, and what it needs in order to keep that yearly money production crop coming, are different.  

We would think that with the amount of ingenuity in today’s society, that we would recognize this problem and that we would all work toward a solution.  It is not just the random consumer being effected; it effects the farmers who farm these crops, the families of the CEO’s who run the corporations making the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Presidents, heads of state, celebrities… no one is immune, everyone is affected.  If you are human, you are being currently effected, or you will be effected in the future.  The degradation of food leads to diseased bodies and no one can argue the fact that our population is becoming more and more diseased.