Agriculture has been a foundational component of our evolution as a species. The agricultural revolution over 10,000 years ago led to settlements, which in turn led to cities, contact diseases, architecture, trade centres, currency, technology and the modern human.
We owe much of our daily comforts and existential questions to agriculture. Our diets changed, and so did our lifestyles and our understanding and our moulding of the world.
Today we face questions that should have been answered long ago: How healthy is the food we consume? How does climate change affect the quality of our produce? And to what extent shall we sacrifice our personal comfort for the good, and most probably the survival of the next generations of our species?
To start answering these questions, we must be aware that one element upon which our whole agricultural system relies is now at risk. “We have damaged the soil matrix,” says Owen J. Morgan, Global Ecology Group Founder and CEO.
In addition to erosion, soil quality is affected by other aspects of agriculture. These impacts include compaction, loss of soil structure, nutrient degradation, and soil salinity.
By now, a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tonnes a year, according to the United Nations.
Whether it is pesticides, mono-cropping or synthetic fertilisers, the ways through which we damage the soil are many. And the alarming decline is forecast to continue as demand for food and productive land increases while pressure from climate change, population growth, urban development, waste, pollution, and the need for more (and cheaper) food mounts.
According to WWF, half of the world’s topsoil has been lost in the past 150 years only. Barring any imminent and successful widespread adoption of hydro-culture (an up-to-now unattainable proposition that comes with its own environmental drawbacks), we simply cannot and will not grow food to feed 7.8 billion people, and counting, without soil.
To access more soil for agriculture, we cut down forests. However, as noted by WWF, “When agriculture fields replace natural vegetation, topsoil is exposed and can dry out. The diversity and quantity of microorganisms that help to keep the soil fertile can decrease, and nutrients may wash out. Soil can be blown away by the winds or washed away by rains.” And cutting down forests has, in any case, a litany of dangerous effects on our ecosystem.
It is evident; things need to change and fast. All farmers, growers and consumers should have a common goal to protect, maintain and build their most vital asset – soil.
→ The Soil Association, UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.
What can be done to save our soils? We first need to think of them as alive: The soil matrix is a combination of organisms, minerals and organic matter, which interact with and impact one another.
“In fact, one teaspoon of healthy soil can contain as many as one billion bacteria, plus fungi, protozoa and nematodes”, explains FoodPrint. Soil is alive, and it is vulnerable, for it takes anything between 100 and 1,000 years to develop.
To protect our soils, and help them regenerate, we need to rethink what and how we eat. We need soil for agriculture, but it is agriculture that is killing our soil.
We also need to remember that we are connected to our soil: We eat what comes from it, so if it is bad for the soil, it is bad for us, and if it is good for the soil it is most probably good for us too.
“Let’s try and organically grow crops […] you don’t need to think about large scale farming as being pesticide-driven mechanical farming”, says Owen.
Following sustainable agriculture practices means limited to no synthetic pesticides use, relying on compost, green manure and mulching.
“Farmers are getting into what is called cover crops. They realise that instead of ploughing the land, you are better off planting a cover crop, and let that cover crop effectively replenish the soils”, Owen adds.
These practices not only improve the health of our soils, but they also lead to healthier produce, containing more and higher quality vitamins and minerals, therefore making us healthier.
Alternatively, we can let nature do what nature does best when left alone: “Let nature take it over for a while because it is amazing what happens,” says Owen.
There is an increasing realisation that soil life may be the key to crop productivity, but little research is being invested in this area, and substantial knowledge gaps remain. The Global Ecology Group dedicates time and resources analysing soils and soil organisms, an essential first step to support soil health.
After all, GEG’s research and development is inspired by nature. We apply this inspiration to human needs by respecting our interconnectedness and interdependence with nature, and by working sustainability for the future of our species and our planet.