It is hard to imagine there is so little soil when we stand and look out at our vast landscapes where the ground lays in wait for the warmth of spring and the touch of the farmer’s hand.
The shrinking global land base that is arable seems a country mile away and another farmer’s problem. Despite the fact that only seven per cent of the Earth’s surface is arable and one per cent is in fresh water, Canadians do not feel the same pressure on resources that other countries do.
The competition to grow more is really about our thin margins which does not address the fact that we severely lack a market supply pull that reflects a hungry world. And while we run this race to get more per acre in terms of production, the mother that feeds us — the soil — is pushed to a state of dependency.
Beneath her surface there is a host of action: microbes, bacteria, fungi, and insects that are busy in the art of regeneration. This occurs naturally and is aided by plants that sequester carbon and breathe oxygen. We really don’t know for sure if an annual plant can sequester at the same level as a perennial, as both soil profile and species contribute to the storage capacity of the plant. We have no way of asking the soil how the way we choose to farm affects her in the long term, but her dependency on inputs makes me question if there should not be a consideration of her future needs.
On the Prairies we have focused on soil conservation to assist in the preservation of nutrients and water while reducing erosion. But this differs in other parts of the world where farmers are experiencing a tipping point as soils burn out, blow away, or are not responsive. The affected farmers then go back to grasses or some other form of cover to help the soil regenerate.
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In very simple terms, soil likes to be covered so she can stay cool. When she is too hot that is an open invitation for unwelcome guests but she is determined in her modesty to cover herself, so she will take those rascals in. She also needs a biodiverse environment that includes water, animals, birds, and insects to keep her environment in balance. If she can cool down and this biodiverse community starts to come back, the naughty plants are pressured by the good ones and over time there may be a restored balance.
Soil and its purpose are seen through the eyes of the individual. For example, if we start with a statement ‘soil is for growing food,’ this may invite diverse perspectives.
One person may say that this occurs naturally in forests and fields and therefore land should never be disturbed because of carbon release, and claim that this alone will reverse climate change.
Another may argue that forests and grassy plains are climate regulators and there to sequester carbon so that intensive agriculture can take place on arable land, also aiding in climate change.
A third argument is that soil is for the support of animals, particularly nomadic animals, that are part of a natural cycle and we could be using more animals in our food production to build the soil. Grazing livestock in a way that keeps them moving mimics nomadic herds and the benefits, such as bionitrogen, may far outweigh the potential negative effects of methane.
And yet another argument is that soil is man’s domain — to use as he sees fit for non-agricultural use (such as buildings) to generate economic wealth and personal income that can be used to buy food — under the assumption that there is a ready, affordable, and permanent supply of food to buy.
Those close to the Earth may wish to remind us that soil is a filter and a stabilizer, adjusting according to the environment it is in and is thus seen as living. The term ‘Mother Earth’ reflects the beliefs of those who see soil as having spiritual and healing properties.
If you are smiling at all the possible conversations, you are not alone.
I would suggest that in each one there is an element of truth and also an ecological loss or deprecation. Even the most biodiverse environment such as the forest, which has multiple sources of food, could not feed our current population. We need all the systems for food production in many classes of soil and environments.
And although this column is about considering a wider range of soil use, I wonder if we have really begun to unearth all of her secrets.
Regardless of our view, 95 per cent of the food we eat is rooted in that beautiful base we call soil. We need more dialogue on soil regeneration and a greater appreciation of her needs as we plan for the future.