How soil is much more than dirt

Soil: our solution to climate change?

There’s a lot of talk about water scarcity and quality lately. The conditions of the air, too, are often addressed, declaring states of emergency in some cities. Between serious drought and polluted air, solutions tend to be bound to decreasing our burning of fossil fuels and consuming less water- yet our numbers and demands continue to rise.

Where exactly do these resources begin to degrade their integrity? Which chains of events in fact precede the breakdown of healthy water tables or smoggy atmospheres? How will future generations feed and protect themselves from global crises?

It is the Earth’s soil that is quite literally swept under the rug as if it were merely dirt, therefore it remains largely overlooked by many people who are not ecologists or farmers. After all, soil is often associated with death and decay; it’s identified as space for burial, discarding things and, with further misconception, a compound of filth and disease.

Soil, however, is teeming with organics and vital processes that balance all of earth’s cycles, converting death into new life and connecting all organisms as the basis of the biotic community. There are billions of microorganisms existing symbiotically in just one teaspoon of fertile soil. Respecting the dynamic mechanisms is crucial to the understanding that soil is in fact necessary for life – just as the air we breathe and the water we drink are essential.

At the outset, healthy soils hold more water through organic binding underground, reducing the amount of runoff that strips nutrients from the ground while limiting evaporation. Healthy soils can also build upon their organic matter, in turn growing more plant and fungal life to hold yet more water, between 18-20 times more than its own weight. These conditions further promote a recycling process that continues feeding nutrients back into the plants’ natural cycles.

In Deborah Koons’ Symphony of the Soil documentary, an experiment is featured showing four stations of varying soil types in bottles equipped with drainage systems: Conventional soil, Organic soil, Organic soil with compost and finally Organic soil with compost and a cover crop. As the host pours water into the four stations it reveals to viewers the stark difference between conventional soils and organic soils combined with sustainable practices.

Conventional soil is shown not only allowing the used water to sift right through as run-off, but also stripping the soil of its minerals along its path and leaving almost no water retained inside the soil. On the other hand, the Organic compounds combined with compost and crop cover display almost no run-off and much more water retained to a point where it is instead drained downward back into aquifer and stream systems thereby replenishing our water tables.

Essentially, this Organic complex results in a restoration of fresh water necessary for ongoing agricultural and drinking habits. Furthermore, with soils containing water through healthy root, bacterial and fungal systems, flood and mudslide incidents are drastically reduced.

Healthy soil goes beyond retaining water- it is a natural CO2 sequestration system that has for millennia utilized carbon to produce life and filter harmful chemicals. These systems have unfortunately been altered in recent years through poor agricultural methods (such as tilling and pesticide use), causing soils to become stripped beyond their capacities.

By returning to regenerative farming systems in which plants convert carbon into foods, more than 100% of our current annual carbon emissions could be sequestered. These organic farming methods, including use of permaculture, native plant growing or compost and cover crop use, are widely available and are actually more cost-effective than conventional means.

Similar to our historical ignorance of our supply of potable water being boundless, it can be easy to assume that the whole planet is one mass of fertile grounds that would be impossible to exhaust.

Yet soil, just as all renewable resources is limited in its ability to replenish itself when misused. In fact, over one third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion.

Soil becomes compacted and hardened when misused. Poor practice includes growing only one species of crop per region, failing to adhere to crop rotation methods, using synthetic fertilizers and insecticides/fungicides, over-tilling or neglecting to use compost or crop cover that assist in the regeneration of nutrients essential to living organisms. The compaction of soil leaves more open space for leeching of minerals and run-off that skip by the water tables and hasten evaporation.

Considering that 70% of all water consumption by humans is used for agriculture (much of which is in turn used for the meat industry), wasting water when our aquifers are already reaching their limits frankly seems ridiculous when Organic methods are more beneficial in every aspect.

Therefore the empowerment of Organic farmers and support of their practice by purchasing Organic produce has never been more important. The link between capacity of soil to retain water and sustainable growing methods is something all farmers must consider when facing the upcoming droughts and air pollutants caused by former methods.

Dr. Tim Lasalle is the former CEO of the Roadale Institute, the longest running organization to support Organic farming practises in America. As he puts it in Symphony of the Soil, “Rarely do we investigate things as a system”, referring to the traditional understanding of how to gain the most yield in a temporarily sustainable fashion. Fundamentally, healthy soils result in healthy air and water. The next steps should seem obvious: more focus on soil and an increased conversation about whole systems in which all life begins and returns to the planet through soil.

Cassie Piccolo

Cassie graduated from the University of Guelph, Canada, with a degree in Biological studies and Fine Arts. She has worked with Organic Food organizations, Food Not Bombs, worked with the Sierra Club, is experienced in sustainable agriculture and landscape architecture, and most recently attended the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris. She has been a front-line activist, fighting alongside Indigenous and rural communities against fracking in Canada. In spare time she writes poetry, paints, and hangs out with her massive bear-dog.
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