Everywhere in the world, soils are degenerating — fast. This is not simply my opinion. This is a fact disputed by no-one. Why should this make us concerned, and what can we do about it?
To understand the issue, we first need to understand what is a healthy soil, soil as nature made it, undisturbed by man. Such a soil is teaming with life, most of it invisible to the naked eye. Apart from macro-organisms like worms and beetles, there are literally tons of micro-organisms and fungi that all have a role to play. For example, the tunnels made by worms create air spaces that allow heavy rainfall to soak in, yet store water that is available for plants in dry times. Microbes digest both dead organic matter and raw minerals in the soil and make them available to plants.
When artificial fertilisers are used, the farmer no longer needs to return organic matter to the soil in the form of compost or green manure. Thus soil life has nothing to eat, begins to die out and indeed can become so depleted that the soil is regarded as ‘dead’. Why does this matter? Surely we can just keep pouring on the soluble plant food and our plants will grow? Yes. Almost. But there is more to the issue than that.
While those micro-organisms are busy pre-digesting organic matter for the plants, they secrete a kind of ‘glue’ that binds small soil particles into larger particles. This is what we call ‘crumb structure’. Without the work of the macro- and micro-organisms, the soil becomes ever more compacted as it loses structure. So now when it rains, the water runs off instead of sinking into those worm tunnels and between the crumb particles, leading to erosion on a large scale — tons of what was once good soil is washed away. On the other hand the soil is also not storing water in those spaces for plants to use in a drought, thus leading to scarcity and even famine. The compacted soil becomes too hard for plant roots to penetrate deeply, leading to stunted plants. And in strong winds, this depleted soil, that hasn’t been ‘glued’ together by the exudates of micro-organisms, is blown away as dust. (see The Dust Bowl)
There are now large areas all over the world that were once producing abundant crops, but are now not capable of growing anything.
Similarly, there were once a far greater number of people that were capable of growing their own food and/or living in close proximity to the growing process.
Never before has there been such a disconnect between those who grow our food and those who consume it. Do we have much of an idea how the food we purchase in the supermarket has been grown?
It is time to close this gap. First of all, it’s important that consumers become aware of the practices that are being followed in agriculture today, and the consequences. And farmers need to realize what modern farming is doing to our land. That is the role of education — both in school and out of it. This is the first step.
What if growers stopped killing the soil with artificial fertilisers and turned instead to ‘regenerative’ methods of farming? This is not necessarily identical to organic farming, as some farmers may choose to continue to redress imbalances with inputs from outside the farm. But, the emphasis here is on returning organic matter to the soil to build up a vibrant ‘soil food web’, allowing the soil rather than applied fertiliser to feed the plants.
Although some farmers may reach this conclusion on their own, we — the consumers of their products — can provide a bit of a nudge, by shifting our buying habits to support, and encourage, regenerative farming practices. The farming of the future cannot be a continuation of the huge agri-business operations that we see in much of the world today. Regenerative farming thrives in smaller, diversified farming units. And the farmers of these will thrive best with practical community support and involvement. Many such operations already exist, the most well known perhaps being ‘Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)’ schemes, where consumers support the farm financially, help out on the farm a few days during the year, and in return receive weekly boxes of produce.
We need to rethink our whole attitude towards food production. And it starts with our children. Many schools now have gardens where children grow food — organically of course. What if children from urban spaces were connected to rural spaces run by committed regenerative farmers, and there was regular interaction between the two environments? Would they learn to treasure the web of interconnectedness that makes up our soil, our food, our environment, our earth? These children are the farmers and consumers of the future. Both have a vital role to play.
Lead Author: Gita Krenek
Gita is part of a group called ‘Farming 2030’ (Golden Bay, New Zealand). The members are not just farmers, but also people who want to support environment-friendly farming practices. The project aims to promote a shared understanding of how farming and environmental practices can sit side by side for the benefit of all; to foster a community that is better informed and unified, by hosting presentations, workshops and farm field days, as well as producing regular media articles and networking. One of its projects is the conversion of a traditional dairy farm of 300 acres to regenerative practices. It is intended that Go-ahead Farm becomes a demonstration model of holistic land use management. A permaculture plan has been drawn up detailing water management, trees for shade and shelter, creation of wetlands, management of waste, animal health, and diversity.
Resources for Further learning:
- ‘Dirty secrets of a healthy soil’ ,TEDx, Pittwater
- ‘Save our soil, save our planet’, TEDx, Cruse
- ‘Kiss the ground’, Netflix
- ‘How can we avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation?’ IPBS, written report.
Anchor Author: Daniel Rudolph (final paragraph)
Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry. Daniel is a very curious and playful person and is always open for creative collaborations.