Down and Dirty


“It’s like magic,” he explained, “You drop a seed into the dirt, add a little water and you get squash! It’s like Jack and the Beanstalk.”

The kindergartener was all excited after his day at school where the teacher had talked about plants and growing — and I had to bite my tongue as I thought about how this kid resisted eating squash.

It seems easy, this growing of plants, but in truth it is a very complex operation, as any farmer knows. And the magic seed is only a part of it. You need the right amounts of light and water, protection from weather and predators, and most of all, the right soil. (Of course, we all know that weeds grow whether and where we want them to or not.)

Melissa Breyer reports in the Soil Science Society of America: “Soil provides ecosystem services critical for life: soil acts as a water filter and a growing medium; provides habitat for billions of organisms, contributing to biodiversity; and supplies most of the antibiotics used to fight diseases. Humans use soil as a holding facility for solid waste, filter for wastewater, and foundation for our cities and towns. Finally, soil is the basis of our nation’s agroecosystems which provide us with feed, fiber, food and fuel.”

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be too concerned about the health of our soil. Alexander Daniel and Tom Lovett have noted, “Turning biodiversity-rich areas into intensified, monoculture farming, drives land degradation and soil erosion, threatening the world’s food supplies … Half the world’s fertile soil is already lost and, with an estimated 60 years of topsoil left, we need a farming strategy that restores soil and secures food production.”

They continue with a warning, “Farming is responsible for almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions … Agriculture is the root cause of 80% of tropical deforestation … Global food production needs to prepare for an uncertain future and rising populations.”

A part of that uncertain future is the climate crisis. Melissa Breyer notes that one of “the high-impact things we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions … is to tend carbon-sequestering soil.” In other words, taking care of our soil is a key element in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other impacts pf climate change. If you think about future population growth and climate change-induced migration or agricultural impacts, food supplies may become the most important key to mankind’s future survival.

Alex Robinson reports, “Researchers at the University of Leeds in England have found that soil fungi can provide significant amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen to cereal crops like wheat. They say this finding could potentially reduce reliance on fertilizers that harm the environment, contribute to climate change and threaten future food security … The way most nitrogen-based fertilizers are produced generates up to 3 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. And the raw materials mined from the ground for phosphorus-based fertilizers are running out.”

Daniel and Lovett prescribe “Regenerative agroforestry, an agricultural method that mimics natural ecosystems … Through holistic management and smart design, various components like crops, trees, plants and livestock combine to form a diverse, self-sustaining production system … The diversity of plant life within an agroforestry system boosts soil fertility. Beyond fostering food production, this prevents soil erosion, regulates water cycles, sequesters carbon and controls pests and weeds.”

Each of us has an opportunity to help protect the planet’s soil, as described by Breyer:

1. Reduce food waste. I was raised to clean my plate (kids were starving in China or India or Sudan or…?). I learned later that maybe eating less is a healthier practice, not only for the planet but for me.

2. Eat a diverse diet. Food diversity helps with biodiversity and soil fertility when land is used to grow multiple crops. There is more to meals than white bread, mayonnaise and bologna.

3. Compost. Food I don’t eat doesn’t have to be thrown in the trash, but can be composted to feed my garden. That makes it easier to eat less, even if I over prepare.

4. Read labels on lawn and garden products. The most important step before applying any product is to thoroughly read the label and all instructions. Both over- and under-application of the product cause problems.

5. Perform soil tests. Find out what your soil is missing. Over-application isn’t good for the soil or the plants, and may cause runoff pollution and damage friendly insects.

As with most things, it’s usually not the really big, monumental efforts that make a difference, it’s the small routine things that anyone can do. All the small steps add up to be significant. After all, as reported by Breyer, the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) confirms,

“Soil is essential to life.”

Additional Information:
Melissa Breyer, 5 Things Everyone Can do to Protect the Planet’s Soil, December 4, 2019, TreeHugger Daily News
Melissa Breyer, 7 High-Impact Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, January 3, 2020, TreeHugger Daily News
Alexander Daniel and Tom Lovett, How Regenerative Agroforestry Could Solve the Climate Crisis, December 20, 2019, World Economic Forum
Alex Robinson, New Research Shows Fungi Could Lessen Reliance on Fertilizers, October 28, 2019, Modern Farmer

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