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.