The Real Dirt on Soil

Soil has an image problem most likely propagated by her black sheep cousin, dirt.

Dirt is to be gotten rid of, unwanted, unclean, disposable. Soil is anything but. She is
rich and alive, teeming with organisms she is fruitful and forgiving, why then have we treated her like dirt?

We use Soil as a shroud. If it can be buried we’ll use Soil to hide it – landfills, fields, meadows and backyards become graveyards for our garbage, mistakes and poisons… out of site, out of mind, “problem solved”.

We view Soil as an unlimited commodity, “common as dirt” to be taken for granted.

This notion perpetuates the myth that Soil is capable of doing all that we ask, regardless of capacity or the impact of our actions.   Unfortunately, the more our relationship with Soil is viewed through this lens, the further we are to understanding Soil’s true value and importance in everything we do and enjoy.

All life is dependent on Soil and every day we loose more of this invaluable resource.  According to a 2006 Cornell University study, Soil depletion is 10 to 40 times faster than her ability to replenish, with more than 10 million hectares (37,000 sq. miles) destroyed each year.   Yet the need for food and other products continues to soar.  In terms of yearly productivity loss the economic impact in the United States alone is estimated at approximately $37.6 billion. Soil loss also affects health, air and water quality, and how infectious disease organisms are transmitted to people.

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Soil and nutrient loss is not new to farmers and gardeners.  Since WWII the response to
the problem has been the commoditization of agriculture.  Science has taken over much of what nature intended to be Soils’ responsibility for growing food, thereby reducing Soils’ role to that of a ‘medium’ or container to hold plants, fertilizers, water and herbicides.  Unfortunately this direction has further undermined our understanding of Soils’ role, not just in growing our food, but in nature’s community for the invaluable service she contributes to various ecosystems.  Long-term consequences will soon come to light in terms of our ability to adapt and compete in a climate changing, highly regulated world marketplace.

As one who is a generation off the farm, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings in
understanding the life of Soil – the importance and complexities of her relationships.  In a lot of ways, I’m discovering Soil is much like me.  She has her own birth and like a child she changes over time and develops into a mature body.  Soil breathes and consumes
organic materials.  More importantly, she seeks, conducts and thrives on intimate relationships with other entities – specifically air, water and other vital organisms including humans.

Given our collective and recent history with Soil, ‘exploitation’ might be a better descriptor of our relationship with Soil.  There are a growing number of folks worldwide advocating an image makeover for Soil to raise awareness of her failing health and the consequences on food production and the health and well-being of our communities. Australia must think so with the recent appointment of their former Governor General as Soil Ambassador.  Perhaps our world is ready for a cultural and economic paradigm shift that includes Soil as a valued member.

 

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