I recently read an article in a Time Magazine regarding soil. I was taken aback! As a gardener, I think I always took soil for granted, thinking it would always be there. All you had to do to make it better was amend it with some organic matter and voila! It becomes fertile and reusable for growing all sorts of things. How naive I was!
Soil is an invaluable asset and studies indicate that topsoil, which is used to produce 95% of our food, is predicted to run out in about 60 years. Massive heat waves and unsustainable agricultural practices have contributed to this catastrophe. Read on to learn the benefits of topsoil and understand why our soil is on the verge of extinction.
This article is the first in a series of 2 about soil, desertification, degradation, and how to mitigate a problem facing our entire world.
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Soil is Living Earth
Basic Topsoil Profile – A Little Lesson
Before you learn how we’re damaging our soil, first, a little lesson on what topsoil is and how it forms.
Topsoil is the uppermost layer of our Earth and is one of the most important components of our food supply. This surface soil is divided into 3 layers, or horizons.
The first horizon (uppermost) is the O – Horizon (organic) which consists of dried leaves, grasses, dead leaves, small rocks, twigs, surface organisms, fallen trees, and other decomposed organic matter.
The second layer known as A – Horizon (topsoil/middle layer) is also referred to as the humus layer. It consists of organic matter and other decomposed materials. This is where seed germination takes place and new roots take hold. Crops and other living plants begin their lives in this horizon.
The third horizon, E – Horizon (bottom of the topsoil layer) is where nutrients leach from the A and O layers, creating a vitamin and mineral rich soil.
Importance of Topsoil
Vitamins and Minerals
According to Time Magazine, “a teaspoon of fertile soil can contain, in some cases, more than 9 billion organisms. Nearly 60% of our body is microorganisms: less than half is from our parental genetics.” These organisms are vital for life.
Fertile topsoil is composed mostly of organic material that is derived from living matter as was described above. If you remove organic material, which is mostly extracted from plant litter and animal waste, the soil turns into sand which is nutrient poor. The term desertification refers to good fertile soil turning into nutrient deprived sand. Without the organic material, which has the ability to retain water, the soil dries out and turns to sand.
A grave statistic from Time Magazine shows that desertification is happening at an astronomical rate; that is one acre of the world’s soil is turning into sand every second! This is having dire effects on all living creatures on Earth.
However, if we add organic material back to sand, it reverts to a healthy living organism. This is easier said than done.
Below is a YouTube video capturing what has happened to arable soil around the Gobi desert and its adverse impact on local farmers.
Controls Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere
In addition to containing vital minerals and vitamins which are transferred into our food, topsoil absorbs carbon dioxide. It is the second largest carbon store, or ‘sink’, after the oceans. Plants draw the carbon dioxide from the air, helping to keep our levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in balance. “But atmospheric carbon also affects the soil, because carbon that is not used for above-ground plant growth is distributed through the roots of a plant, which deposit carbon in the soil”, according to the European Environmental Agency.
If the soil is not disrupted, the carbon dioxide will remain stable and locked in the soil for thousands of years. However, if the soil IS disturbed, it will allow more carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere.
Consequences of Poor Soil
Soil and Nutrients
Since 95% of our food comes from soil we can surmise that a vast majority of humans’ vitamins and minerals are derived from foods grown in soil. If the soil is nourished with proper organic material, those who eat the product will ingest vital nutrients and minerals. However, studies from the U.S. Center for Disease Control have shown that Americans are substantially deficient in vital vitamins and minerals that help sustain a healthy body, such as potassium, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin C.
Without preserving our soil, the food we eat will become less nutritious, causing malnutrition.
Causes of Soil Extinction
There are many culprits contributing to the extinction of soil. The top offenders are climate change, unsustainable agricultural practices, unsustainable use of land in urban and rural areas, and degrading forests.
Many people to this day believe climate change is just a cycle through which the Earth is naturally passing. I understand that the Earth has cycles and I’m not denying this. However, human activity has exacerbated this cycle to the point where conditions are extreme: extreme winds, extreme tornadoes, extreme storm systems, extreme droughts. All of these climatological phenomena are, yes, extreme. They are lasting much longer and are no longer unusual, but have become every day occurrences.
Because of these “once in a thousand year episodes”, our soil has been subjected to extreme temperatures causing evaporation of water from the soil and, hence, desertification. According to UnitedNations.org, “desertification doesn’t refer to the advance of deserts. Rather, it is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by climate change and mainly human activities.”
1. Intensive Tilling
The regular practice of farmers has been to till the land after every crop season. This practice has disrupted the soil and depleted important nutrients from the soil.
2. Over Fertilizing
People think the more fertilizer you apply to the ground, the more crops you will yield. But at what cost? Fertilizers have created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico due to the runoff of nitrogen from fertilizers. These algal blooms have smothered all the nutrients and depleted all the oxygen from the water, causing living matter to die.
Just feeding the crops with fertilizer, denies them other nutrient rich necessities which come from good organic soil. Fertilizer also disturbs the biology of the soil.
The level of organic matter in fertilized soil is lower than that in non-fertilized soil. High nitrogen levels make microbes in the soil work harder. The microbes use up the extra nitrogen and extract the carbon, creating lots of carbon dioxide that is dispersed through the atmosphere, rather trapping it in the soil.
Chemicals and fungicides are applied to plants and crops to alleviate infestations of insects and/or diseases. These additives are like chemotherapy for cancer that does not target only the cancer cells. Therefore, they kill everything, both the good and bad insects and fungi.
This does not sustain a healthy, fertile soil.
Stampeding hooves on the ground erode the topsoil, and overgrazing of the fields strips the land of grasses. Without the grasses more erosion occurs and hence, trapping of carbon in the ground is diminished.
5. Overcutting of Land
The elimination of plants and trees will unlock the cover that binds the soil. This deprives the soil of nutrients and exposes it to the elements causing desertification of the land. This occurs when trees and bushes are stripped away for fuelwood and timber, or to clear land for cultivation or development.
Unsustainable Use of Land
Inner cities naturally have more buildings, parking garages, paved streets, parking lots, houses, schools, etc. As a result of all this developement, soil and greenery has been displaced, covered, and removed. Temperatures soar in urban areas due to the close proximity of buildings holding in the heat, dark colored streets which absorb the heat, and lack of green areas to absorb the heat and the carbon dioxide to cool down the areas.
Mining entails clearing huge masses of land. It is typically stripped of topsoil, vegetation, and trees, causing deforestation. Roads and transportation facilities are created to transport the product. All these disruptions to nature devastate the habitats of not only animals and insects, but microbes. Their ecosystem comes to a crashing halt.
All Is Not Lost!! How To Save Our Soil
As you can see, many practices that have been encouraged and implemented throughout the years have had dire consequences. But all is not lost.
Desertification is rapidly gaining international interest along with soil deprivation and degradation. Scientists have figured out ways to measure the carbon left in soil and are learning how to replenish it. My follow up blog will discuss methods and movements that have been promoted in order to mitigate the effects of desertification and soil deprivation in our world. You will also be given tips on how you as a beginner gardener can take charge of your garden and help fix our Earth. Click here to learn “How to Save Our Soil”.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about our soil and how valuable it is to sustain our lives. Please leave a comment below and share this post with friends and family.