marisa morby

Design & Nature Reimagined: Can soil save us? (Part 1)

The other day I was watching the Netflix show Kiss the Ground, which is all about soil. I enjoy documentaries, and although climate documentaries can be overwhelming, I don't know all that much about soil and thought the movie might be informative. But I watched it two weeks ago and am still thinking about it! Here's a little bit of what I learned. Buckle in, cuz this is only Part 1 of 2...

Why soil matters

I do a lot of gardening, so in that respect I know that soil is important. The makeup of your soil can help your plants thrive or inadvertently kill them. Fertilizing your soil with nutrients is always helpful in fall or spring, to make sure you get good growth. And soil testing helps you know what imbalances you might have. Beyond that I didn't know too much else. In fact, what I didn't know was the difference between dirt and soil. Dirt is the erosion of soil, and what happens when all of the microorganisms that live in the soil have died without being replenished. Soil means that plants will grow. Dirt means that nothing will grow. That's how we ended up with the Dustbowl in the US; excessive drought and over tilling ruined the soil and left nothing but dirt. Winds coming across the plains would kick up huge dust storms. People all across the country were starving. In the years since, we came out of that drought, only to create a climate crisis that now threatens us globally. It's far past time that we learn more about the soil that sustains us. Enter the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS has Conservation Agronomists working to explain to farmers and other land owners exactlyhow microorganisms impact the soil and teach how we can better protect it.

Currently, there's a social issue where food producers don't know how the soil works or basic ecological principles of the ground they're working with.

How soil works

Carbon is a driving energy and it runs our entire world. Carbon is good. Humans are 16% carbon.

Forty percent of carbon gets leaked out into the soil to feed the microorganisms that live within it. The microorganisms make glomalin, a carbon glue, that helps control the flow of water. Because of the ecosystem soil creates, it has the innate ability to sequester CO2. The soil contains a complete universe of life. And not only that, but the soil is alive. There are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the earth. Like I said, it's a universe. Looking at it this way, when you actually do the math, we're about 1% human and 99% microbes.

The food we eat gets broken down when we chew and the bacteria in the gut consumes the food and we get our nutrients from that. In actuality, we get the nutrients from the soil.

And the more tilling we do the weaker the soil gets. When the soil is weak, it has no microorganisms. Without microorganisms the soil doesn't have proper nutrients. That lack of nutrients is passed on through the plants we eat. And eventually, when the soil is stripped of all its living microorganisms, you're left with dirt. So, how did we get here?

How soil destruction got amplified

content warning: death

Pesticides were the first chemical weapons used in history in WW2, developed by a Nazi chemist. He tested them and then used those chemicals in the gas chambers at concentration camps. After the war, those chemicals were rebranded as pesticides.

We found that using those chemicals decreased pests on crops and initially helped improve harvests. After we started using chemicals in the soil farming in the United States continued to change. We went from a more traditional method of farming where agriculture and livestock were farmed together, to a structure where they separated out livestock production. This goes against the cycle that already exists in nature, where food is growing, you have animals that graze or forage, and the waste of the animals fertilizes the soil, completing the cycle.

In addition to that, in the US we removed diversity in our food crop. Now, our number one crop is corn. Corn is overwhelmingly sprayed with glyphosate, an herbicide used to kill weeds. However, it's _also _believed to be a carcinogen.

For every American alive, 3 pounds of toxic chemicals are sprayed on our crops, and that now gets into the water and everywhere else. It's on our food, in our water, in breast milk. It's in everything. California has started suing Monsanto for this. Glyphosate disturbs the microbiome and can lead to cancer. Since it kills microbes in the soil, it can also kill microbes in our stomachs.

What this means on a global level

Since the 1980s we've lost one third of the earth's top soil. The loss or removal of plants and trees changes the microclimate for those specific regions and that ultimately causes desertification. And desertification causes changes at the macroclimate.

Because of this continuing loss of top soil, two thirds of the world is slowly (or sometimes not so slowly) turning into desert. Ever year, 40 million people are pushed off their land. By 2050, 1 billion will be refugees from desertification.

At the current rate we're going, the remaining top soil will be gone in 60 years. That's 60 harvests for us to make a difference, or else we won't be able to continue growing food. So... what are we going to do? Is there anything we can do? There are quite a few people who think so. Next week I'll talk about how farming is evolving to confront and solve this problem.

A small plant shoot growing out of the soil.

Photo by Daniel Hajdacki on Unsplash