words by ruth h. robertson
The topic of soil management may not interest the masses. But the rate at which human consumption is degrading the Earth’s dirt threatens our very existence.
Happy Earth Month!
While many folks celebrate Earth Day, the roots of the annual holiday, held every 22nd of April, are less well known. Earth Day was first celebrated 53 years ago, back in 1970, and is considered to be the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. In the 1960s, Americans began to understand that fossil fuels and pollution caused by extractive industry was detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. This was, in part, thanks to a new book by Rachel Carson entitled Silent Spring, which became a bestseller. While environmental concern had been brewing, this new surge of awareness, and the launching of Earth Day, had the effect of aligning diverse groups under a common banner of environmental protection. Because of Earth Day and the attention it garnered, as well as the way it organized and mobilized activism efforts, the United States created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
Soon after, major legislation was passed by Congress that would safeguard the environment, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. These new laws protected the nation’s biodiversity and prevented the extinction of precious wildlife. They also prevent the disease of death of millions of citizens to this day.
Unfortunately, there is one aspect of environmental protection that’s been overlooked, to our detriment. In a way, it’s funny— because when you think about it, the need for its preservation is obvious. Perhaps we simply take it for granted. On the other hand, education on the subject and why it should be protected is practically nonexistent, so it’s no wonder the public remains blissfully ignorant about this silent crisis. Just what am I referring to, you ask?
And to be more specific, soil. Soil covers the surface of our planet, and is the result of physical, chemical and biological weathering. Soil itself is more complex than you may realize. It’s a perfect mixture of lifegiving ingredients: microscopic organic material (both alive and dead) and air and water and minerals. Put together, this magical mixture is one of Earth’s most important natural resources.
“Like almost everything else on the planet, soil is falling victim to human consumption.”
Healthy topsoil is teeming with microorganisms that recycle organic material. These tiny microbes are the foundation of Earth’s life cycle, from decomposition to the emergence of new life.
Soil is considered a renewable resource because it is constantly forming. However, its formation takes a very long time and its replacement is extremely slow. While soil formation rates vary over the surface of Earth, in some places it takes thousands of years to come into being. In areas where it is replenished the fastest, it still takes hundreds of years to develop. On average, generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years.
Like almost everything else on the planet, soil is falling victim to human consumption. Overall, humankind has failed in the management and stewardship of the resources we’ve been given. We take more than we need, and do not replace what has been removed. The land has been pushed to the breaking point. The usable topsoil necessary to grow the food all living organisms require to survive is disappearing at a rate we cannot replace quickly enough. As of now, scientists predict that we only have about 60 years of topsoil left. We are losing topsoil at a rate of 10 to 40 times the rate in which it can be replaced. Right now, about 40% of the soil that’s currently being used for agricultural purposes is so degraded that it cannot adequately support the growth of new plants. According to experts, we are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every single minute.
All soil is not created equal.
The topsoil we need to grow robust crops must be carbon rich because soil itself is alive. It eats carbon, but the carbon it needs to thrive is being lost too quickly without being replenished. Causes for this diminishment range from overgrazing to soil erosion, to deforestation. It’s also made worse by the use of hazardous chemicals, and poor farming methods like not letting the land rest or by stripping the land of plant material to the point that no photosynthesis can take place, which would naturally incorporate more carbon into the soil.
Degraded soil that is poor in carbon has less nutrients and is therefore less able to support life. Degraded topsoil produces about 30% less food—and this is occurring at a time when we need to double food production to keep up with population growth worldwide. Degraded soil greatly reduces productivity.
And as topsoil degrades, it loses its ability to absorb water. Around the globe, we are already starting to experience freshwater shortages, and agriculture accounts for upwards of 70% of human freshwater use. Water passes straight through degraded soil, and washes past dry root systems. Degraded soil only holds half the water healthy soil does. With the continued degradation of topsoil, irrigation water will simply wash out to sea and be wasted.
“My Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) ancestors, and all Indigenous peoples of Earth, have long understood the importance of soil and its antecedence to all life on Earth.”
As you may have guessed, soil degradation and the loss of topsoil also plays a role in climate change. The destruction of soil is a vicious cycle. When soil loses carbon, that carbon goes elsewhere. It is released into the atmosphere, and the planet gets hotter. This becomes a positive feedback mechanism in which the land is further degraded, more carbon is released, and so on.
Much has been said of Indigenous peoples’ proven abilities in protecting ecosystems as of late. The prairie fields of the North American continent are yet another example of this. My ancestors’ expertise in land management preserved the ground in such a manner that when scientists study what topsoil should be, in depth and robustness, in its natural state, they compare it to our prairie homelands. The Native plants, grains, and wildflowers that settlers called weeds, and thus attempted to mow down to create more farmland, have cradled the soil here in all its pristine majesty, still teeming with life and its remnants, for millennia.
One of our sacred medicinal plants, the Bush Morning Glory, used during Sundance ceremony, appears diminutive at first glance, but its strong roots may reach a depth of more than 10 feet down. Indeed today, scientists say one of the best methods of preventing soil degradation and erosion is by maintaining healthy, perennial plant cover by planting a cover crop across farm fields. Experts are also heralding the organic farming methods used by Indigenous peoples of old, and a return to these practices, as a primary means of saving the topsoil that we have left.
My Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) ancestors, and all Indigenous peoples of Earth, have long understood the importance of soil and its antecedence to all life on Earth. We know that not only is it necessary to grow our foods and medicines, it has healing properties, and as the flesh of our Mother Earth, it can unite us with her. This is why we believe it is important to take the time to touch our bare feet on the ground, and feel the dirt between our toes. Our connection to Mother Earth must be nurtured and renewed, and through her touch, this physical joining rejuvenates us spiritually as well. This is why many of our rituals are also performed in bare feet, with our soles and souls bared naked on the ground. And this is also why those who identify as women among my people wear long skirts in ceremony, so nothing may come between ourselves and our glorious Mother, this life-giving planet.
The topic of soil management may not interest the masses, but if we fail to address the issue of vanishing top soil, we will cease to exist and there will be no hope for our grandchildren. After all, what are we if not the dirt from which we came?