The world is facing a series of threats, climate change, loss of freshwater, antibiotic resistance, not to mention the age-old threats of terrorism, war and famine.
But, even if all those issues were resolved, scientists argue, we’re finished.
All human life depends on it, despite this, the issue of safeguarding our soils remains relatively off the radar – probably because, as one expert recently remarked ‘soil isn’t sexy’.
It’s the International Year of Soils, but we wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know it!
A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation by the UN Food and Agriculture organisation suggests we only have about 60 years of topsoil left, that’s only six more decades of growing crops on this planet.
Coupled with this is the world’s ever growing problem of having more mouths to feed. The UN predicts that our global population will exceed nine billion by 2050, that will require an increase in food production of 60 per cent.
To do that, the UN estimates, six million hectares of new farmland will be needed every year. Yet 12 million hectares, double that, are lots through soil degradation annually. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise the danger here.
Part of the problem is our understanding and perceptions of the ‘brown stuff’.
Soil is a living organism and as such requires care. It is a living system which transforms the materials it encounters and breaks them down to make them viable for plants, which in turn keep animals and humans existing too. In essence, soils sustain the cycle of life.
A handful of soil contains more microorganisms than the number of people who have ever lived on the planet. These microbes engineer the soil to make it more resilient and better at holding water. Yet we treat it like nothing more than dirt, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Sadly, we are the source of our own undoing when it comes to our soils. Techniques developed by humans to feed the world, i.e. commercial farming, are responsible for the ‘starvation situation’ we may soon find ourselves in.
Over-ploughing, the misuse of fertilisers, over-grazing and even removing stubble from the fields after harvest, is all having an effect on the carbon levels in our soils.
To give you an idea of just how much we have degraded our soils, a recent study published in the journal Anthropocene, examined the undisturbed sediments in a French Lake that dates back to the 11th century. The findings showed that the intensification of farming since then has increased the rate of soil erosion sixtyfold. To add to this, another study in the UK found that soil in urban allotments across cities and towns that has been cultivated by hand, contains more organic carbon than any agricultural soil. Startlingly, these urban gardens produce four to 11 times more food per hectare than the average farm.
According to University of Sydney professor John Crawford, 40 per cent of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either ‘degraded or seriously degraded’ – the latter means that 70 per cent of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, has disappeared.
Farming methods strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust and weaker in nutrients. Soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Even the well-maintained farming land across Europe is is being lost at unsustainable rates.
This loss of soils has a knock on effect for other, headline-making, environmental issues facing the world today.
“People don’t always think about how it’s connected with so many other things: health, the environment, security, climate, water. For example, agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use: we pour most of our water straight onto the ground. If soil is not fit for purpose, that water will be wasted, because it washes right through degraded soil and past the root system. Given the enormous potential for conflict over water in the next 20-30 years, you don’t want to exacerbate things by continuing to damage the soil, which is exactly what’s happening now,” Crawford said in a recent interview on the issue.
Our capacity to produce food is already causing conflict around the world, especially for countries dependent on imports of foodstuffs. Egypt, for example is entirely dependent on imports of wheat. Some scientists argue this was even one of the issues that sparked the Arab Spring.
More developed nations will face different problems like the influx of environment refugees, fleeing desperate situations resulting from a broken food system.
In saying all of this, there is still a lot we can do to improve our soils. Firstly, Crawford suggests, we need to focus on getting more carbon back into the soil by reversing bad farming practices. Another interesting idea for fertilising the soil lies in using our own human waste. “We can add manure and consider using human waste from cities as fertiliser, instead of just flushing it all out to sea.”
The second issue is to bring farmers and scientists together to work on soil breeding targets that focus more on human nutrition and on traits that improve soil while still keeping up with productivity. “Farmers need to be appropriately rewarded for regenerating the environment and producing food that supports a healthier society.”
Lastly, Crawford argues, we need to recognise that this is a global problem that is worthy of our attention and would benefit from a united response. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in each country, and we don’t have time to do so. It takes decades to regenerate soil. I find it quite ironic that while the Mars Curiosity Rover is poking around looking for life in Martian soil, we’re in the process of extinguishing life in our own.”
Here are 9 things you can do to improve your soil, as recommended by non-for-profit group soilsforlife.org