The Story of Soil
The soil is really, really important. If you are a scientist, a gardener, or a concerned consumer, you might care about the health of the soil. But I’d like to broaden this category to any environmentalist, nature-enthusiast, consumer, and–even more expansive–eater. Without healthy soil, vegetation cannot grow well or abundantly for very long. As a result, agriculture becomes unsustainable. Why does that matter? If you think about it, civilization as we know it could not exist under such circumstances. Around the Neolithic Era (10,000 BCE), nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers began harnessing natural resources and domesticating crops in order to produce a controlled and reliable food supply, which allowed them to settle down in communities. Restoring the soil and promoting better agricultural practices is imperative for a functioning food system–and a functioning society.
Over the course of time, agriculture has evolved from small, community- or family-based farms to extensive, centralized systems. While we may be producing more food than ever, diminished quality and nutrient density; reduced carbon sequestration; and more erosion, flooding, and pollution are all consequences of large scale commercial food production. In fact, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in sixty years, if current erosion rates continue, we will have depleted much of our topsoil. Thus, this abundant, controlled, and reliable supply of food is currently achieved at the expense of the environment and our health, and is bound to fail. This fall I am exploring the topic of regenerative farming as a student intern with Sierra Club Connecticut. In this and upcoming Chapter newsletters, I will explore why the soil is in danger, what “sustainable” agriculture means, how we can achieve it, and what you can do to improve the way we farm. Hopefully, at the very least, you will take away with you a deeper understanding of some deep-seated problems plaguing our food system. Even more, perhaps you will become an informed shopper and attentive citizen.
Why the Soil is in Danger: The Road to Modern Agriculture
So many issues with farming may seemingly link to modern practices, but if we take a brief look at English botanist Sir Albert Howard’s account of history, we can observe that agricultural successes and failures have actually fluctuated. Successful agriculture, typically marked by enduring soil fertility and consistently high “yields,” has been accomplished by numerous ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, with their proximity to the nutrient-rich Nile River, or the Chinese, with their emphasis on composting. But harmful practices have also existed. The slash-and-burn method used in Southeast Asia and Africa, the immense deforestation of the Mediterranean people, or the open field, plough-dependent system of the English in the Middle Ages all degraded topsoil. In America–even before industrialized farming became widespread–we have seen the consequences of overcultivation and poor land management, coupled with extended periods of drought, when clouds of suffocating sand and dust swept across the prairies in the 1930s. Indeed, the imperfections and flaws of agriculture are not recent developments. The soil has been exhausted and depleted before, in many cases irrevocably. What was once lush, thick greenery in many arid regions of the world has become dry, cracked desert floor. A more local example includes Cape Cod, where about a third of the landscape–from Chatham to Provincetown–has been largely stripped of dense forest and replaced by sand dunes, due to the deforestation by European settlers for purposes of agriculture and livestock grazing.
However, despite increased recognition of proper land use practices after the Dust Bowl, things only worsened for America’s agricultural system in the coming decades. While the acceleration of industrialization and technological advancements during the twentieth century expanded the scale and productivity of America’s farmland, these changes exacerbated any prior mistreatment of the land. For instance, the civilian use of insecticides after World War II changed the way farmers (and everyday consumers) viewed pests. Rather than follow ancient natural techniques, farmers began dousing their crops in synthetic compounds. This efficient method of pest management became even more prevalent during the “Green Revolution” and the associated “feed the world” mantra. Pesticides, herbicides–especially Monsanto’s “Roundup”, and fertilizers all became synthetized throughout the 1900s. Moreover, farmers began planting rows and rows of one or two selective crops, especially corn, wheat, soy, or cotton. These crops absorbed nitrogen (a key nutrient for plant growth) particularly well, allowing farmers to produce larger yields. Such “commodity” crops became especially attractive when the federal government offered subsidies to help keep the prices up in the face of large surpluses. Then, in the 1990s, Big Ag began selling minimally regulated genetically engineered seeds, which combatted common threats–pests, disease, and weeds. For instance, by inserting a protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into crops, plants could fend off insects without the need for additional pesticides. Thus, agrochemicals, monoculture, and GMOs have become key attributes of modern day “conventional” or “industrial” agriculture, which is the dominant form of agriculture in America today.
According to the Food Sustainability Index, the United States ranks poorly in sustainable agriculture practices and access to nutritive food. Regenerative agriculture is becoming an increasingly common solution in promoting a healthier planet and community, and I hope to share more with you in the coming newsletters. Next month I will cover the consequences of this deeply entrenched, detrimental system, including reduced farmer autonomy, compromised public health, and environmental degradation. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some questions to mull over: what do you think about when you picture the soil–is it just dirt in the ground or something more? How do you think about the food you eat? Are you aware of its origin? How might poor agricultural practices affect you?
Shelley Rose is a Sierra Club Connecticut student intern.
Howard, Albert. The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. Oxford, England:
Oxford City Press, 2011. *Printed on archival paper. Howard’s work was originally published in 1947.
“Redirecting EU Cap Payments to Sustainable Farming.” IUCN, 9 May 2018, https://www.iucn.org/news/europe/201805/redirecting-eu-cap-payments-sustainable-farming.