Everyday we benefit from soil but we take its existence and necessity for granted. Soil is critical for the environment and life on this planet. I was remiss in getting this post up for World Soil Day, which was December 5th, however the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils. These events are an effort on the part of the FAO to focus worldwide attention to this vital natural resource. In the spirit of the day and kicking off a year of soil appreciation, here is some interesting information that you may not have known about soil:
Soil is not a renewable resource, like fossil fuel sources, the amount of soil on the planet is finite. Some agricultural practices leach nutrients from soil faster than natural processes can replace them. This will lead to infertility in soil and degradation of land. People are somewhat cognizant of the consequences of continued dependence on fossil fuels, but do not worry about running out of soil. National Geographic Emerging Explorer and agroecologist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Jerry Glover, acknowledges the gravity of this situation and how it will affect the world’s population “This is, of course, very critical because we’re supposed to be increasing agricultural production to feed and nourish some of the ten billion people, but it’s at the same time that our soils are the thinnest and most nutrient depleted.” We have already lost an area of soil larger than the U.S. and Canada combined, and there are no signs of slowing or stopping the loss. The rate of deforestation and land conversion to agricultural usage is currently occurring faster than ever previously recorded. It could take up to 200 years to restore soils in the U.S. to levels observed in the pre-Columbian period.
Ignoring the consequences of soil misuse can cause the collapse of civilizations. Well-known, serious, modern examples exist, but are largely ignored; think the dust bowl of the U.S. and Canadian prairies, famine in Africa’s Sahel and the severe erosion experienced in China’s Loess Plateau. These situations arose from failure to learn from historical precedence; the Romans, Greeks and Easter Islanders all plowed themselves into failure. Conversely there are examples of civilizations who took care of their soil and profited from it, such as; Incan terracing and the agroforestry practices employed in the Polynesian islands.
Soil is a living system. Fertilizer alone cannot restore soil health completely, the 3 or 4 nutrients available commercially are not the entire package when it comes to soil health. Microbes and insects which live within the soil contribute to nutrient cycling and exist in symbiosis with plants to provide the foundation for soil health.
Technology can make a difference. Low and no-till farming practices implemented in the U.S. have reduced erosion and improved soil conservation, but it is not enough. Reducing disturbance to soil is not the cure to soil loss, integrating new practices with old may help put agriculture back on track to restoring soil health. Marrying ecology and technology, incorporating crop production, native vegetation and livestock has successfully restored soils in northern Ethiopia.
Soil conservation will help prevent droughts. Farmers employing no-till practices fared better during recent droughts than those using methods which greatly disturb soil. Additionally, healthy soils retain moisture better, making soil and water conservation beneficial to each other. Conversely, poor quality soil like thinned topsoil can be carried off by wind or stormwater, this can have a huge impact on surface water. Agricultural runoff will deposit excess nutrients into water bodies causing algal blooms which can use up all the dissolved oxygen killing marine life.
The science in this area is very new, in a relative sense, there has been a dearth of soil research over the past 30 years. This has created a shift in thinking and understanding the interconnectivity of life and the environment. For more information on the International Year of Soils, events to attend and contributions you can make, please visit : http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/.