Even though soil is a renewable resource, it can take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to develop, depending on its climate
So much of soil’s value is locked deep underground, but it’s brought to the surface in our everyday lives through the food we eat, the fossil fuels that drive our cars, the raw material of our clothing, the lumber in our homes and the development of our land.
Maintaining healthy soil is crucial, both to the planet’s health and to the survival of the human population. We need to work with nature to rebuild and regenerate our soils, but first we have to understand what it is we’re fighting for.
What is soil?
Soil and dirt are often used interchangeably, but they couldn’t be more different. Dirt is what soil becomes once degraded: it has almost no value, it can’t sustain life, and is void of any nutrients. Soil isn’t one thing; it’s a dynamic and complex system and seen as Earth’s skin that anchors all life.
The living part of soil organic matter is vibrating with a wide variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and algae, but also plant roots, insects, earthworms and larger animals, such as moles, mice and rabbits who spend part of their lives in the soil.
These microorganisms like earthworms, insects and fungi play an essential role in the soil’s ecosystem, especially in the breakdown of organic matter. Decomposition and decay are both vital processes in nature, as without them the world would overflow with plant and animal remains and we would experience a decline in new growth due to a shortage of nutrients that would be locked up and unavailable in the dead forms.
Decomposition is the recycling of nutrients that have been used by a plant or animal to build its body. This dead tissue breaks down and is converted into simpler organic forms, which is a common food source for bacteria, earthworms and fungi. These living parts of soil are responsible for ingesting the tissue and converting them into forms that are usable for other organisms. This process is all done out of sight but is vital in providing essential nutrients to the soil ecosystem to help support the future growth of new organisms and is the key aspect to the cyclical process that maintains life on Earth.
Soil and climate change
Soil supports the maintenance of our forests, wetlands, jungles, prairies and grasslands which hold the planet’s vegetative biodiversity. By supporting our vegetative biodiversity, soil is also by extension supporting animal biodiversity. Healthy soil builds healthy plants, which much of our wildlife and domestic livestock consume.
Green covers like plants and trees work in symbiosis with our soils by inhaling carbon from our atmosphere and pulling the carbon deep into the Earth. Healthy soils make a fantastic storage unit of this carbon and nearly 80 percent of the carbon in our ecosystem is stored right in the soil. Soil and how we use it plays an important role in helping us to address climate change for this reason. Since organic matter is one of our major pools of carbon, it’s capable of acting as either a source or sink. Soil contains the fossil fuels that drive climate change when extracted, but when left underground, gives us the chance to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
Soil degradation through the years
Desertification is the result of human exploitation of these fragile ecosystems, and the effects include land degradation, soil erosion and sterility, loss of biodiversity, and huge economic costs for nations where deserts are growing.
Many modern practices, like the cutting down of forests for agricultural gain, have been a massive contributor to the loss of our planet’s biodiversity. Since soil life relies on circular systems, once one link is removed, the entire operation begins to unravel. Without plants and greenery, wildlife and organisms are left without food, creating lifeless and bare land that is exposed to the elements like wind and rain. Once exposed, soil begins to erode and compact, making it susceptible to extreme drought or flooding because it’s unable to hold in moisture.
Although agriculture adds plant life to soils, the methods used in industrial agriculture weren’t created with soil health in mind. Practices like overgrazing (keeping livestock in one spot to continuously eat grass) compacts the land and strips our soils bare, making it susceptible to erosion. As the livestock continue to graze, it affects the plant’s ability to regenerate quickly enough. Once the animal eventually gets to the roots of the plants, they disrupt the binding of our soil and leave it loose and eroded once again.
The soil is further worn down through tillage, which is the process where farmers use tractors to break up dense and compact soil. Done sporadically, tilling is minimally harmful, but done year after year it disrupts the beneficial microbes and organisms living in the soil. With little life left in soil, the eroded dirt that farmers are left with has poor water absorption and aeration, which leaves their crops susceptible to weather damage. The answer to this crop damage has been the use of synthetic fertilizers to boost plants’ health, but scientists have found that the overuse of these chemicals changes soil composition and disrupts the balance of microorganisms in the soil.Photo by Leon Ephraïm on Unsplash
The solutions to save our soils
The continual exploitation of our soils has left us with under 60 years of harvests, and a gradual decline in productivity and health before then. By mass extinguishing cover crops and life, we’ve rid our planet of its ability to store carbon efficiently and removed our cushion for absorbing the carbon back. What we’re left with is an environment that is fatigued and lacking the beneficial organisms to fight back on pests, disease, viruses and other threats.
Living and growing food with soil in mind is possible, and it’s seen through methods like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and low-waste or low-consumer living. Holistic land management includes eliminating the damaging growing practices and extractive nature of the modern world by: reducing deforestation, reshaping our models to fit our current populations, maintaining the integrity of our protected areas, preserving our most precious wildlife, and respecting and empowering our local communities.
We’ve seen that degraded soil isn’t an option to sustain human life. An entire reformation to the way we grow our food and consume goods won’t just reverse the damage done but will actively rebuild our soils and help to establish a thriving ecosystem that doesn’t make us choose people or planet; the answer is both.