Soil is More Than Just Dirt

iStock_000005900018SmallIt is the Internet for Plants

Last week, Claudia wrote that we are charged to good stewardship of the soil, among other things, but that is not a simply understood task.  Soil is far more than just dirt, in fact, soil is an entire ecosystem in and of itself containing: sand, decaying and decayed organic matter, worms and other bugs, bacteria and viruses, and various mycelia. The question is: how does one provide stewardship for this ecosystem?

Let’s consider how this ecosystem functions in the absence of our farming practices and other insults. The sand provides drainage, very little will grow in wet sand without a lot of nutrients. Decayed organic matter or compost, provides nutrients and helps hold water. Worms and certain insects eat some of the organic matter and digest it to make the nutrients even more available to plants, and they aerate the soil making room for roots and making air more giving roots better access to oxygen. Bacteria and viruses further break down some of the organic matter and make certain vitamins available like vitamin B12. Finally, we are just beginning to realize exactly how important the Mycelia are to the soil and the plants growing in that soil. The Mycelia are fungi that grow under the ground spreading fine filaments far and wide. These filaments help break down organic matter further to make nutrients more available and they spread chemical messengers from plant to plant so that all of the plants in a particular area can be warned of any threats to the group of plants. We could fill volumes with details of each of these constituents of soil, but the point is that soil is very complex.

There are a lot of insults that we introduce to the soil ecosystem which leave the soil depleted, susceptible to erosion, and leave it unable to provide nutrients to the plants planted therein. One of the most damaging practices is plowing. Anyone who has ever turned healthy soil by hand will understand how many things there are in the soil. One must be very careful not to cut worms in half, destroy clumps of mycelia, or bury the organic material too deep to be useful. We throw an ever increasing amount of chemicals on the soil which have a deleterious effect on the soil and its constituents. Plowing also makes erosion a very real problem washing away all of the parts of the soil which chokes rivers and streams and make it impossible for fish to survive. Once we go down the road of plowing the erosion that happens as a result also necessitates the use of chemical fertilizers.

It is impossible to think that pesticides won’t kill the beneficial worms and insects that call the soil home. It is also impossible to think that herbicides won’t damage or kill the fungi or literally stop the decay of the organic matter. The fertilizers, which often come from petroleum, are put on the soil in ever increasing amounts to make up for nutrients that are lost to erosion and used up by plants that are planted in ever increasing field density to improve yield. When we consider the damage that plowing does and add the chemical insults the resulting damage to rivers and streams is compounded. This is no way to treat God’s Green Earth.

We do these things for the sake of expedience and to make more profit as dictated by boards of directors and investors who demand higher profits. We do these things to the soil so that we can spend a minimum percentage of our income on food. We do these things because we are afraid that if we don’t grow more food we will have food shortages. What we need is to treat the soil as a living being because it is for the sake of the soil and our own sake as well.

Farming Matters

Love Your Body Love the Earth Series…

When 85% of us were responsible for producing food things were simple, we knew where our food came from. Now that only 3% of us are directly involved with food production and we have every kind of food we can think of at our fingertips things are not so simple. In an effort to make a cogent argument we must start at the beginning.cornucopia

Farming has changed a lot over the last hundred years or so. We are facing several crises simultaneously: soil depletion and erosion, choking and poisoning of our rivers and streams, ever increasing amounts of pesticides and herbicides showing up in our food and our bodies, and finally, farmers are not able to make a living wage by farming. These are big problems and we have not even begun to talk about our own nutritional needs which are not being served well the way things are going with conventional food production.

Large scale industrial farming has started a viscous cycle of soil depletion and over-use of farm chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer). It is understandable that in order to produce sufficient amounts of food (we are speaking of vegetables for the most part, but this argument can be extended to meat production as well) we will need to use large equipment to cultivate our food crops. The use of this heavy equipment tears up the earth in a way that leaves the soil exposed and makes it more likely to suffer large amounts of erosion every year. Erosion leaves the soil depleted of its important nutrients both for the plants to grow and for us once we eat the produce.

In an effort to maintain crop yield which is absolutely critical when you are trying to make a living from farming, the farmer is forced to use fertilizers, soil conditioners, and a wide array of herbicides and pesticides. All of these: soil, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and soil conditioners are flushed into local streams where they decimate the stream ecosystem by changing the pH of the water, poisoning fish and water plants, and making these streams hospitable to deadly bacteria. These insults effect waterways ecosystems all the way to the ocean. This is not new, we have been aware of these problems for several decades and there are some things we can do about it.

The most effective way for us, as individuals and communities, to bring about changes in these destructive practices is to buy produce from farmers we know who limit the use of these dangerous chemicals and use farming methods that conserve and protect their land. Buying organic produce whenever we can and to the extent that our budgets will allow also helps because certified organic production prohibits the use of most, if not all, of these chemicals. We can vote with our dollars to create the world we want to live in, it will take some time, but it can be done.