Focus Environmental Advocacy in Priority Order – Soil is the Most Important

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.

Further Reading:



5 thoughts on “Focus Environmental Advocacy in Priority Order – Soil is the Most Important

  1. I’ve got GOOD NEWS for you! There are a large number of soil production systems that desperately need to be cleared of their soil excess. The bottoms of many weed infested lakes are coated with silt that can be used to rehabilitate soil. Clearing it, harvesting it for use, would put those lakes back into the Earth’s cooling system. Look at Lake Chad. The resources are large and overly renewable.

    1. Going to be tough to convince farmers to do that, Stephen. Sounds like a job for an NGO, but farmers are not likely to adopt the practice at a scale that will impact the annual loss globally.

  2. Hi Dan. Thanks for this thoughtful essay. I had to read the article twice, because I wasn’t actually sure what you advocating. My understanding of the applicable definition of the term advocacy in the context of your essay is: “public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy”. If I am incorrect in this, please feel free to correct me.

    I’m not an activist, but am involved in food production and soil building here. It is interesting stuff. I speak with a diverse range of people and it is reasonably clear that the majority of those people want cheap food. I can understand their point of view and am non-judgemental about it.

    However, producing food whilst building soils has a higher economic cost than industrial agriculture – which is effectively a process of drawing down on the long term fertility of soils.

    Given the higher economic cost, I’d like you to undertake a little thought experiment: Imagine how you could go about marketing the idea to people that their food – not just some of it, but every single item – is going to be more expensive – by a substantial amount – than they are currently used to.

    That is what sustainability looks like. As a suggestion, I reckon that unless the core problem of peoples expectations regarding food costs is addressed then there will be no support for building top soil. As a further suggestion, develop your own experiences on building top soil and producing food and the economics of the situation will become clear to you. I’ll share a secret with you though: The longer you spend on those two activities, the easier it will become and the yields will increase relative to the labour inputs.

    1. Hello Chris:

      Thanks for your input and thoughtful challenges. I will try to respond as thoughtfully.
      I believe it’s a poor assumption that the production of food grown in a restorative approach is as dramatically higher in costs as you might suggest. Here’s why…

      First, there are plenty of examples around the world where farmers are growing in polycultures at scale and their customers have not experienced the dramatic increase in costs as you suggest while producing wholesome and healthful food. But, I’ll let leaders such as Mark Shepard and Ben Falk demonstrate this fact. I don’t believe that it’s a “given” that we must endure higher economic cost to produce food that will be good for people. I will admit that people are going to have to return to eating patterns that don’t value convenience over nutrition and flavor.
      Secondly, I’m not convinced either that we’ll need to market more expensive food to shoppers if we adopt a restorative approach to producing food. On the contrary, I believe industrial agriculture will cost more very shortly. If we continue down the agricultural path we’re on, it will destroy the remaining part of our topsoil and further poison the water in the hydrologic cycle and the world will have to produce crops in an even more chemically based intensive industrial manner which will far outcost any restorative approach. If a bag of RoundUp Ready seed corn is already three times the cost of a comparable non-GMO bag, how much more will it cost in 15 or 20 or 50 years? If glyphosate is no longer effective in one pass, but now I must make three passes over my fields for it to be effective, then my cost of production just dramatically went up. This is exactly what’s happening in industrial agriculture here in the U.S. The last three decades of industrial agriculture has already shown that economies of scale do not apply. Farmers have broken more ground and increased the number of hectares in production, which many would think would drive down the cost of production. Instead, the cost of chemical-based agricultural production has gone up instead of down. No, restorative agriculture will be less costly in a very short amount of time.
      Lest someone believe I’m crying wolf about industrial agriculture, Wes Jackson of The Land Institute wrote back in 2002, “In the last 40 years, nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more than 10 million ha per year … Ninety percent of U.S. cropland is losing soil above replacement rate. Loss is 17 times faster than formation on average.”* In large part, these data have worsened in the subsequent 12 years since Jackson wrote those startling words.
      Chris, you wrote that people want cheap food. And I do agree that’s what they say. But the reality is that the food westerners are eating today is not cheap at all when you take into consideration the full costs of eating the modern western diet – and that MUST include our cost of health care. It’s very shortsighted to think that the cost of eating does not include health care costs. When viewed this way, westerners are not eating on the cheap because our diet is causing significant cardiovascular disease, endocrine disruption, and abnormal cell growth. These dramatic increases in disease correspond exactly with the green revolution and the widespread adoption of modern chemical-based industrial agriculture.
      I agree that westerners need to change their expectations of what they want to eat. They should expect much better than they’re currently offered from industrial agriculture. Part of the needed change is helping shoppers understand fully what their dietary choices mean … to their own health and to the health of this planet. The stuff sold on the shelves of the modern supermarket is not doing either one any favors.

      * Jackson, Wes; “Natural systems agriculture: a truly radical alternative,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 88 (2002) 111-117.

  3. Hi Dan. Haha! Glad to see that you understood the challenge. I also appreciate the detailed response.

    Of course your first point is correct for existing established organic/restorative systems. However, in order to achieve that outcome on degraded land (or industrially farmed land), you first have to restore the top soil in the first place and also install the infrastructure (people and systems) necessary to achieve that outcome. That is where the higher costs come into play and from a systems perspective, that cost cannot be ignored.

    As to the second point, well that assumes that the issues I raised previously are addressed and they are a fair and reasonable cost. Also your response assumes that there will be no response from the industrial agricultural systems from increasing consumer costs. For example, I would never have expected the drop in quality of food produce over the past decade or so. There may also be future economic responses such as subsidies which we cannot predict. There may also be substitution responses such as the horse-meat-gate issue for example. You just never know.

    I understand your point about the potential increasing costs of the industrial agricultural system and agree that that may be the case, however, regenerative systems – which I pursue here – are also more labour intensive and I wouldn’t want to predict which way it will possibly go. As an alternative possibility, it may be that we are not able to feed the population in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

    As to the wholistic health care example, people have a great deal of trouble in thinking in terms of systems and not many people can connect the dots between cause and effect.

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