The Big Picture
Today’s chemical agriculture is destroying our planet’s soils at a disturbing pace—soils that took hundreds, even thousands of years to develop. A food system based on monoculture, genetically engineered foods, and toxic agrichemicals is decimating to the soil, which is a living, breathing ecosystem.Despite what industry purports, biotechnology is not the answer to world hunger, nor is it sustainable. The rate at which we are using up fuel, water, and soil does not bode well for the longevity of our species, especially in light of the latest world population estimates.New predictions, based on revised algorithms described to be far more accurate, predict the world population will reach 11 billion by the end of the 21st Century.2, 3 Feeding this many people requires a VASTLY different approach than the present system.The rate at which soils are disappearing from our globe is alarming. If you visit Worldometers,4 you can view a real-time clock that tracks the area of land lost to soil erosion, along with other environmental statistics. As of my last check, the area of land lost to soil erosion so far this year amounted to 4,987,477 hectares—and of course, the year isn’t over yet.The focus of our food system should not be on growing food, but rather on developing healthy soil, which should be a priority if we want to survive as a species.
One Tablespoon of Healthy Soil Contains 50 Billion Busy Microbes
Most of the planet consists of solid rock, upon which most plants can’t grow. Approximately 75 percent of soils are transported soils (such as from windblown sediment, or loess), with only 25 percent forming in place. Soils are incredibly diverse, and different plant communities adapt to different soils.Soil starts with a mineral source—weathered rock, glacial silt, river sediments, lava flows, sand, etc.—but it isn’t soil until organic matter is added. Organic sources can be living or non-living. Old leaves, dead animals, and tiny living things all enrich the soil with its necessary carbon.Healthy soil is about 50 percent solids and 50 percent air and water, simply teeming with life—mites, nematodes, protozoa, and a whole menagerie of other organisms, most of them smaller than the head of a pin.Soil microorganisms are so abundant that 70 to 80 percent have yet to be identified. It’s estimated one tablespoon of soil contains about 50 billion microbes.5 More than 90 percent of land plants are nourished by mycorrhizae, a symbiotic form of fungi that help move nutrients from the soil into the plants’ roots.But there are also thousands of other microbes playing their parts in this microbial symphony in the soil. According to North Carolina University Cooperative Extension:6“As soil life forms move through the soil, they create channels that improve aeration and drainage. Nematodes and protozoa swim in the film of water around soil particles and feed on bacteria. Mites eat fungi; fungi decompose soil organic matter.The microorganisms’ primary role is to break down organic matter to obtain energy. They help release essential nutrients and carbon dioxide, perform key roles in nitrogen fixation, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, denitrification, immobilization and mineralization.Microbes must have a constant supply of organic matter or their numbers will decline. Conditions that favor soil life also promote plant growth.”
Soil Has Its Own Life Cycle
The full life cycle of soil, in all of its stages, can be seen across the Hawaiian Islands in soils that are several hundred to several million years old, with lava as their substrate. On the new island like the Big Island of Hawaii, you will find soils as young as 300 years to extraordinarily rich 20,000-year-old soils in which just about anything can grow, to 350,000-year-old soils whose nutrients have been washed out by eons of rainfall.Extremely old Hawaiian soils, like Kauai, reaching four million years, are almost completely devoid of nutrients. These ancient soils are highly compressed and essentially just clay.Unfortunately, agriculture the way it’s typically done today greatly accelerates this soil aging process. Soils that would have remained viable for millions of years in nature are rendered dead and lifeless by monoculture in a few short years. Tragically, these soils will take hundreds to thousands of years to recover fully in nature—and not until all agricultural assaults are ceased.Chemical farming results in waterlogged soil that’s easily compacted by heavy machinery, rendered impermeable and susceptible to erosion. One-third of the world’s arable land has already been lost to soil erosion.