There is no greater environmental problem than the loss of our soils.
In honor of the recent release of Kristin’s Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, this is an excellent opportunity to raise the level of advocacy for soil above all other issues. With man doing so many things to negatively impact the planet, it’s a wonder anyone can pay any attention to any one of them, let alone help make a change. Yet, it is the fractured outcry of we who protest that keeps us from being successful in our various causes.
One can conclude that our collective crying in the wilderness about varying causes creates a cacophony that, in itself, results in ineffectiveness to convey ideas and persuade, much less result in practical action.
Some are of the opinion that if human survival is our ultimate objective — speaking from a biospheric perspective — then we who cry out need to prioritize our opinions, issues, and causes.
Grassroots movements can be effective, but, if we are really about human survival, we need to see our locality through a systemic lens that reduces all causes to a focus on the health of the hydrologic cycle and the vitality of the Earth’s topsoil.
In some sense, the hydrologic cycle will continue in one form or other. The question is will that form be one that can still support human life? But, if our agriculture and industry kill the vitality of the topsoil, then we have so great a loss that human survival may be impossible. As sustainable agriculture thought leader Wes Jackson put it, “Aside from nuclear war, there is no greater environmental problem than the loss of our soils.” Though the threat of nuclear war seems to be reduced, the threat to topsoil has increased since Jackson made that statement decades ago.
In Soil Loss and the Search for Permanent Agriculture, The Land Report, No. 4, Feb. 1978, a publication of The Land Institute, Jackson quantified it this way:
According to the Soil Conservation Service, the average yearly loss is nine tons [of soil] per acre. Based on a random sample conducted by the General Accounting Office, eighty-five percent of the farms are losing more than five tons of soil per acre each year.
Seeing that Jackson’s paper was published in 1978 and current monocropping techniques have become more aggressive while subsidized crop prices have endorsed the breaking of more marginal ground that never should be tilled, we are plowing ever closer to a point of destruction that will be catastrophic.
Desertification in China
Yes, many causes and issues are interconnected to the health of the hydrologic cycle and our topsoil. But, it is our current destructive monoculture practices that cause the death or loss of the very soil it requires. It was written somewhere that a good farmer grows the soil first and then grows a crop. One who sterilizes the soil, overworks it by machinery, sprays it with synthetic inputs, and sows annual grain crops is no longer a husbandman, but rather a factory worker.
Wendell Berry, one of the world’s leading voices against industrial agriculture, helps us understand that the goal of the industrial farmer is hyper efficiency to maximize yields of monocrops at the expense of the hydrologic cycle and topsoil. Yield per acre is the mantra, soil and the larger ecosystem be damned.
This isn’t shortsightedness on the part of industrial agriculture. It’s madness.
So I conclude that we must redirect our advocacy and protestations to the cause of the planet’s topsoil. Unless we are in unison, we will be less than effective to change the way humans think about and produce food. Without topsoil, we have no food to sustain our vast population, and mankind will be reduced to following those who promise to feed them or threaten violence to take or protect food.