Thanks to the advent of Facebook and Instagram, no longer do you have to be an uber-nerd to know that just a few days ago, December 5, was World Soil Day. Commemorating that thing that generally goes unnoticed but actually is directly responsible for our survival, soil has become a globally talked about subject—not just for pedologists (soil scientists) but for the general public as well.
This takes place in a world where we, on average, spend a whopping 92% of our time indoors. Indeed, the childhood days of making mud pies are long gone and the substance underneath our perfectly manicured lawns is typically the last thing on our minds.
So why do people care about soil? Why is the United Nations currently running a campaign against soil pollution?
Literally and figuratively ‘six feet under’
Let me take you to my hometown of Hilliard, Ohio, USA. As a young child, I remember going on drives with my parents, many times bored while gazing out the car window at the seemingly endless agricultural fields. Nothing but cows, corn, and soy in sight. Fast forward two decades and just one street along a formerly food-producing area is now home to Sam’s Club, Chic-Fil-a, Texas Roadhouse, and no less than four homewares stores.
Bear in mind that, currently, the organic matter coating the earth only covers 7.5% of it. When competing with many other interests like schools, hospitals, shopping centers, or sprawling apartment complexes, thriving soil hotels, if you will, often get smothered in concrete and smooshed by mega-development consisting of Walmart Supercenter, McDonald’s, TJ Maxx, and Holiday Inn.
Growing population, dwindling soil biota
Even someone who knows absolutely nothing at all about food production could probably deduce that soil is involved at some stage. While money doesn’t grow on trees, apples, avocados, and almonds do—and trees grow in soil.
Soil is non-renewable. We can’t just tear down the local supermarket and cross our fingers before waiting a year or two to be able to frolic through a lush and thriving field supported by healthy humus (organic component of soil). Within a human lifespan, what soil we have is all we have.
Not only are you compacting soil right at this very moment by sitting inside a house, apartment, cafe, or library, but we are also destroying it in a few other notable ways. The very industry that makes use of soil (aside from your former mud pie enterprise) is doing so in a way that’s jeopardizing its health.
ONE-THIRD of Earth’s land is categorized as degraded and we’re currently on a trajectory that involves the death of 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil every single year. Salinization, erosion, chemical pollution, and acidification all threaten the support system responsible for your dinner tonight. And the effects of this can already be felt; besides the massive loss in biodiversity that comes as a result of degraded soil, it may come as a surprise to learn that our dwindling reserve of healthy soil has actually been attributed to military conflicts, like those that have occurred in Chad and Sudan.
With the world population currently at 7,668,515,360 and rapidly increasing, we essentially need more soil than we ever have, as we need to feed more people than we ever have. With a rise in affluence, more people are eating more meat than ever—and the more than 24 billion chickens, cows, sheep, and pigs that roam the planet waiting for their imminent slaughter are either living on or eating feedstock from most of the world’s agricultural land. This has serious consequences on the soil. The soy that fattens up a factory farmed chicken is exhausting the very growing media the chicken relies on directly, and the fast food addict relies on indirectly. With soil serving as a much-needed reservoir of carbon, not only does its demise impact food security, but it results in the second highest source of CO2 released into our atmosphere—just behind the burning of fossil fuels.
Terror or technology?
Industrial farming has been under attack—and rightfully so—for a multitude of reasons. Beyond concerns with animal agriculture, the long-term sustainability of crop production as we know it is at risk. Many contemporary farming practices have been able to increase the amount of food produced—but at the cost of soil fertility. With a sole focus on yield, heavy tilling and excess agrochemical use has literally raped the soil of what it needs, and what we need, to survive.
So where do we go from here? As weird as it sounds, some soil scientists are dreaming of a future for agriculture that doesn’t require soil. We’ll most likely reach a population of 9.5 billion by 2050—how many people will be living on the planet by the end of the century? How can we expect to put food into the mouths of a growing population when the soil required is on the decline?
Technology, like it has elsewhere, has plowed its way (pun intended) into agriculture. It seems as if every day welcomes a new tech-savvy approach to growing potatoes, monitoring soil moisture, or planting seeds. Even furniture retailer IKEA has released a home hydroponics kit.
Hydroponics involves growing plants in gravel, sand or liquid—no soil involved. Some modern-day techniques like this have already demonstrated an increased growing capacity. Sounding like something out of a sci-fi movie, vertical farms made up of controlled hydroponic systems can potentially produce up to ten times as much as their traditional farm counterparts—just think of this capacity when the vertical farm grows in height! Not to mention, tech-y farming solutions have the potential to give the soil a well-deserved break, letting it re-establish itself into something able to again support ecosystems currently at risk for extinction.
But what are the costs of implementing systems like these? What does it mean for farmers and farmland? How will it change the nutritional composition of our food? What are the energy and water requirements for this off-the-land way of living?
Will this contribute to global sustainability—or are we simply brushing the mistakes of our food system under the rug and forcing ourselves to adapt? These are all questions we’re sure to find answers to, for better or worse, as the years go by.
Don’t it always seem to go– Jodi Mitchell
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot