Scientists project that at the current rate of soil degradation, all of worlds topsoil may be gone in 60 years.
WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?
While we are time and again reminded of the importance of air and water in our lives, and how they are fast deteriorating with our actions, seldom does soil become a part of such discussions. Not because it is any less important, but perhaps, because its importance is less known.
Soil is at the bottom of the food chain, yet it is the cornerstone of life on earth. Soil produces 95% of our food. It provides all the nutrients required for successful plant growth. It is also the key player in absorbing carbon (keeping our air cooler and breathable) and filtering water, making available potable groundwater. It greatly reduces flood risk by storing up to 9200 tonnes of water per acre. So minus good topsoil, we are headed towards a world with food, air, water and climate crisis. In short, our doom.
Do we have your attention? Now consider this. It takes over 500 years to generate less than an inch of topsoil. And we haven’t even started as yet!
WHAT HAS BROUGHT US HERE?
‘Humans’. With more humans on the same amount of earth, we have made some really bad survival choices.
- Deforestation: Large tracts of forests have been (and are still being cleared) to give way to agriculture, industry and human settlements. With no trees to bind the soil, it gets washed away by running water into water bodies, also leading to floods and further erosion.
- Crop Burning: You might have read in the papers, and some, more (un)fortunate ones, experienced the gas chamber like situation in Delhi this November. It was attributed to the agricultural practice of burning the crop stubble to clear land for new plantation. What it did to the air quality, we all know, but what it also does is rip the soil of its carbon content, making it un-inhabitable for the good microbes which promote life on earth in ways more than one.
- Over Ploughing: Soil maybe viewed as the skin of earth, ploughing it is like scraping off this skin. Earth then begins to repair it with weeds and microbes (largely bacteria), and later fungi and finally a grassland, forest, etc. depending on the environment and climate. It’s a natural defense mechanism as exposed soil gets irradiated by the sun, killing the microorganisms that hold it together and make it work. This die-off diminishes the soil’s water, nitrogen, and carbon-cycling capacities, not to mention its ability to fight diseases/pathogens and degrade pollutants. Thus exposed, plowed soil soon becomes dead soil, and dead soil washes away during storms or blows away when the wind blows.
- Agro Chemicals: Pesticides and other chemicals used on crop plants to increase yields, changes soil composition and disrupts the balance of microorganisms in the soil. This stimulates the growth of harmful bacteria at the expense of beneficial kinds disrupting the soil. If we preserve and nurture soil biology, there is no need for fertilizers and pesticides.
- Over Grazing: The conversion of natural ecosystems to pasture land lead to high rates of erosion and loss of topsoil and nutrients through overgrazing, which reduces ground cover, enabling erosion and compaction of the land by wind and rain.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
Yes, reverse the process. Grow trees. Our ancients practiced, and modern scientists are rediscovering the gift of ‘organic farming’. That is, chemical-free farming without tillage, stubble-burning and over-grazing, with natural soil enrichers like cow urine and cow-dung manure. Start now.
DIGGING UP SOME SOIL TRIVIA
- 1 Tablespoon of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on earth
- 500 Minimum years it takes to form one inch of topsoil
- 5,000 Different types of bacteria in one gram of soil
- .01 Percent of the earth’s water held in soil
- 20,000 Pounds of total living matter in the top six inches of an acre of soil
- 10 Percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions stored in soil