Deep in the heart of an ancient Sanskrit text lies a profound, yet simple truth about the fate of civilisation: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.” Despite being written almost 4,000 years ago, this passage highlights an intimate relationship that is just as relevant today as it was back then. The life – and fate – of soil and humans is, and has always been, intimately linked.
This simple truth hasn’t changed, but we have. Through modern industrial pursuits to extract natural resources and amass profit, our human connection to and respect for soil has been disrupted. Rendered, both figuratively and literally, as beneath us, soil has lost its rightful recognition as one of Earth’s most valuable resources.
The first of Aristotle’s fundamental elements of earth, air, fire and water, soil is the foundation from which our existence was built. The idea that these four elements were integral to all living matter was the cornerstone of philosophy, science, and medicine for two thousand years. Throughout history, civilisations rose to and fell from power based on how they treated dirt. Soil loss has contributed to the demise of societies and economies from the first agricultural civilisations, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the 1930s dust bowl pandemic that plagued the American mid-West. The history of soil-human interactions suggests that the fate of entire populations depends directly on this relationship. War, famine and disease might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases, populations recover. Soil is the substance that topples civilisations.
Countless cycles of birth, death, fertility and decay have transformed soil into the matrix of life on earth. Made from the same elements as the stars, plants, animals, and humans, just a handful of terrestrial soil contains more organisms than there are people on the planet. These microscopic microorganisms work endlessly to provide a range of ecosystem services that are vital for the functioning and resilience of Earth’s environment. Soils function as Earth’s largest water filter and storage tank, filtering and cleaning tens of thousands of cubic kilometres of water that pass through them each year. As Earth’s carbon storage centre, soils store more carbon than is contained in all aboveground vegetation, whilst regulating emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Acting as Earth’s stomach, soils consume, digest, cycle and store nutrients that serve as the molecular building blocks for all forms of life. But human pressures on soil resources are reaching critical limits, and the future of soil is currently under threat.
Extractive processes like coal mining literally remove mountaintops. Cities expand and are paved over fertile valleys. Modern industrial agricultural practices are skinning the planet of precious topsoil. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, between twenty-five to forty billion tons of soil are lost annually around the world – several tonnes for each person on the planet. And soil conditions are getting far worse in most cases than they are improving. In many cases, this is due to the intensification of modern, monoculture farming practices, which have contributed to a loss of a third of all topsoil over the past century.
Modern commercial agriculture often seeks to increase yield, and thus profits, by cultivating a single type of plant, known as a ‘monoculture’. This seemingly efficient model of farming may offer short-term benefits – primarily in terms of the economy of scale generated by cultivating a single crop. Farmers need only provide for the needs of a single species, allowing them to automate and mechanise the production process, which reduces labour costs and increases short-term profit. However, monoculture agriculture has significant long-term impacts, and associated costs, particularly when it comes to soil fertility. When one, or perhaps two, crops are planted repeatedly on the same land, certain nutrients are sapped from the soil due to the crop’s specific nutrient demand. Instead of rotating different crops, or mirroring ecosystem services to naturally restore the nutrients and vitamins that are found in the soil, monoculture farming causes nutrients to diminish from the ground. Rather than cultivating abundance, this industrial method of farming creates a reliance on artificial inputs like pesticides and fertilisers, and energy-intensive engineering both on and off the farm. According to the journal Interdisciplinary Toxicology, overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides have effects on the soil organisms that are similar to human overuse of antibiotics. Indiscriminate use of chemicals might work for a few years, but after awhile, populations of beneficial microorganisms begin to decline.
The negative consequences of industrial agriculture—from air, soil and water contamination to biodiversity loss—have been extensively documented. In terms of soil, industrial agricultural practices have accelerated soil erosion well beyond the pace of soil production. Yet the dominant contemporary discourse for sustainable agricultural development, upheld and supported by transnational agribusiness corporations, international regulatory bodies and governments worldwide, approbates modern scientific and technological approaches to improve industrial agriculture. But no matter how fervently these institutions push their silver-bullet technological solutions, from GMO crops to improved fertiliser formulations, technology simply cannot solve the problem of consuming a resource faster than it is generated. Moreover, technological solutions obscure the fundamental human element that is required in cultivating vibrant, rich soil. They instead prioritise a means over an ends, which may in fact contribute to the end of soil as we know it (the United Nations estimates that we have 60 years of useable topsoil left should current rates of soil degradation continue). The more soil is treated as a cheap industrial commodity to be squandered, instead of an intergenerational resource to be preserved, the more our collective future is placed at risk.
So, for the sake of soil, and humanity, we need to diversify agricultural systems, and the way we think about our interaction with the land. Increasingly growing around the world is a desire and a move to re-establish agro-ecological systems, and there is a growing wave of research that demonstrates that “business as usual” of expanding industrialised agriculture is not a viable option for meeting the challenges we face in the future. Earlier this year, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, released a monumental report calling for a shift from industrial agricultural practices (particularly the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers) to agroecological farming methods.
Agroecology combines elements of traditional farmers’ knowledge and indigenous agricultural practices with elements of modern ecological, social and agronomic science. Many indigenous and small farmers across the globe have a deep, experiential understanding of their local soil, which reflects a wealth of experience and knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. These farmers have tested, adapted and discovered agricultural practices that restore soil life and associated ecosystem services. Rather than imposing a technological, top-down ‘solution’ generated by off-farm, corporate forces, agroecology creates a dialogue of wisdoms and a mutually respected exchange of knowledge, from which principles for designing and managing sustainable farming methods are derived. As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology works to enhance biodiversity functions that are adapted to local environments, building long-term ecosystem health and resilience. These methods have been effectively used to significantly improve soil quality and reverse soil degradation.
There is nothing in such a sustainable agroecological scenario that violates the Earth’s resource constraints, nor jeopardises the next generation’s ability to grow food. Whilst awareness is increasing, agriculture is not yet on such a sustainable trajectory, and current global agricultural regulations and market signals do not lead us to such a path. A radical new politics that recognises the importance of a sustainable soil strategy and stimulates global cooperation to achieve it is desperately needed. As modern environmentalists, scientists and politicians debate the future of the world’s resources, the future of our species, it turns out, lies in acknowledging the wisdoms of the past. As the ancient Vedas recognised thousands of years ago, we must come to appreciate the role that a healthy respect for soil might play in shaping humanity’s future. Indeed, everything comes from it, and everything one day, will return to it.