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Humanity must stop treating soil like dirt

Why we care: Farmers around the world know soil is the stuff of life

Winnipeg was the site of 2014’s World Congress on Conservation Agriculture where farmers, agronomists, researchers and policy-makers from 33 countries around the globe met to discuss the world’s soil, as the stories in the special ‘Sustainability’ section in the July 2014 issue of Country Guide reveal.

In fact, Country Guide, and our farm readers, feel so strongly about the message, we made the commitment to become the official sponsors of the conference.

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The quality of life of a projected nine billion people depends absolutely on how seriously we take the message at the conference, said University of Washington geomorphologist David Montgomery, author of the book with exactly that title — Dirt.

“As I studied erosional processes around the world, I came to see that soil is really a strategic resource that we don’t talk about at a societal level,” Montgomery said. “Global soil degradation is probably our most underappreciated environmental crisis.

“I want to address the question: why would a geologist write a book that argues that changing the way we farm, by adopting things like conservation agriculture on a global level, is one of the most important issues that we face as a species?”

It’s a serious issue with serious consequences if we don’t get it right. But amidst the dire warnings there’s also a sense of optimism. Panels of scientists in Winnipeg gave new insights into soil and they spoke of what it is and what it does. A group of experienced farmers from the American Midwest shared their stories of cover crops and how they use them to build their soil and care for their land. Delegates from Africa and India told of new machines and management techniques aimed at their small-acreage farmers.

All of this underlines the scope of a global problem that is being addressed at the local level.

And everyone knew the stakes. Conservation agriculture is about the preservation of soil so local industry may continue feeding a global market.

Many of us see the soil as nothing more than a mineral matrix that anchors plant roots. It’s an attitude that Montgomery says must change. He laughed as he spoke of the time he was a geology student and his professor said the most interesting thing about soil was that it had rocks underneath it. Now he marvels at that same soil.

“In the last few decades soils are seen as an ecosystem and the work that’s gone on in studying symbioses between the microbes, bacteria and fungi living in the soil and the nutrient transfers into plants has been amazing,” Montgomery said. “The things I learned in college about soil and fertility are increasingly out of date, and the idea that plants are actually secreting sugars into the soil to feed micro-organisms and trade within a whole underground barter system is something I never learned.”

That barter system brings into play essential nutrient cycles for every continent’s ecosystems. It’s no accident that every eulogy ends with the phrase ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The soil is where the Earth recycles the bodies of all living things.

It starts with plants as they use photosynthesis to convert solar energy into chemical energy. Their roots condition the soil, opening channels for moisture infiltration while introducing the chemical energy that nourishes soil biota. Soil biota, in turn, go to work on the parent material, releasing inorganic elements like phosphorus and potassium that feed back to the plants. Then the plants use those nutrients to build tissue that animals consume, and when those animals die, they return their nutrients to the soil where the soil biota breaks their material down into molecules that plants rebuild into living tissue.

The soil is also the basis for that simplified ecosystem we call agriculture, where we grow specific plants and animals for our use. While agriculture is productive it also has the potential to be very destructive, and history records quite a series of catastrophes that should serve as warnings, like the collapse of Mesopotamia, the erosion of Iceland or the dust-bowl of the North American Great Plains.

“Walter Lowdermilk, 50 years ago wrote that we have the underlying hazard of civilization. By clearing and cultivating sloping lands we expose them to accelerated erosion by water or by wind and by doing this we enter into a regime of self-destructive agriculture,” Montgomery said. “Back in the 1930s Franklin Delano Roosevelt elaborated on this when he wrote that a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

Agrarian societies seem to have a lifespan of 500 years, which is about how long it takes to burn out the soil. The good news is that, if given time, soil will heal itself and live again. The bad news is that it takes a lot of time, and we don’t have that luxury anymore.

“We need a different philosophy, a different approach,” said farmer, business magnate and conservationist Howard Buffet. “The day is over where you can bury your head.”

Conservation agriculture aims to keep our soils healthy and productive through three simple strategies. We want to minimize disturbance by reducing or eliminating tillage, keep the soil covered with living plants or trash, and run rotations of three or more different crops.

In this way conservation agriculture is the environmental cornerstone of sustainable farming. Sustainability takes it the next step into the realm of our economic and social requirements. People are important too, and farmers have to make a living off their land. When they do, they provide the economic base that maintains their neighbours in the local towns as well as the surrounding cities.

It’s why conservation agriculture must be more than just ecological.

“It really has to be a cultural movement,” claimed Rene Van Acker, associate dean of the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. “I would argue that there are a number of elements required to achieve conservation agriculture, such as the desire to do it, the knowledge needed, political and market support, opportunities, co-operation and the technology to make it work.”

Mark Anson farms 20,000 acres in Indiana and Illinois along with his brothers and their sons, altogether making a board of 10 partners. Although the farm was profitable, Anson was not happy with the quality of the soil and, in general, he wasn’t happy with farming. He discovered cover cropping and planting forage radishes or fall cereals as a way to get roots in the ground to nourish the soil after harvest and into the winter.

It’s not seen as conventional in North America, so it took a bit of convincing to get his family to try it out. It took a great deal of commitment to keep on going because, as with anything new, there were a few disasters along with some successes. In the end it was the desire to make it work that kept them going.

Cover cropping makes a farming system a lot more complicated and it takes a great deal of know-ledge to do it well. Anson and his family have spent the last few years learning about their soil and how to manage it better. It’s paying big dividends to him so he’s eager to spread the word and expand the knowledge. As more farmers understand the benefits, he hopes these systems will catch on. Although the principles are universal, however, the devil is in the details and each region, each soil type, has its quirks.

Regional quirks sometimes require unconventional technology. For example, the North American and European big-sky, big-iron approach is unsuitable in Africa or India. There the farms are tiny, and their machinery must reflect, said Brian Sims, an agricultural engineering consultant to the Food and Agricultural Organization at the United Nations.

In these places much of the work is done by hand on very small plots and many of the implements are still animal drawn. In these cases a small, hand-steered two-wheeled tractor is much more suitable, but it’s not enough. Van Acker’s support component is just as important.

“It’s very difficult to introduce innovation to every single user,” Sims said. “It’s much more efficient to train service providers so that they know exactly how to operate the machinery, they can offer quality service and they understand the business.”

It’s a private-sector model that provides a great deal of local support. In addition to training farmers in conservation agriculture and mechanization there’s an incentive to train local people in finance and mechanics. This builds the community of small financiers, machine dealers and mechanics as well as educators. The farmers are now supporting the social infrastructure that, in turn, supports them. These are all things necessary for long-term sustainability, looking to people’s economic and social needs as well as safeguarding the soil.

Farming has always been a tricky business. It’s because we grow plants in ways they simply don’t grow naturally. Disturbed monocultural systems lose topsoil, hemorrhage nutrients and generally waste precious potential.

The good news is that we’re looking to nature and coming up with new ways of thinking and new ways of farming that can lead to reliable methods of food, fibre and fuel production while building more resilient farming systems.

“Mother Nature is a very good manager,” concluded South Dakota State University professor, Dwayne Beck. “She’s been managing ecosystems better and longer than anyone else. She harvests the maximum amount of sunlight, she leaves very few nutrients and she doesn’t leak.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. government — to cite just one example — spends five times more on crop insurance than it spends on research. “Does that make any sense?” Beck asks. “Lack of commitment is THE problem.”

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