This article was published on: 12/3/19 12:12 PM
By Jillian Semaan
When we think about the food we eat, we probably don’t think about the soil it’s grown in. Ninety-five percent of our food comes from soil, and healthy, fertile soils produce more food, are rich in organic matter built of carbon, are less susceptible to erosions and floods and promote biodiversity.
Unfortunately, poor land practices and management, magnified by climate change, have wrecked our healthy soils. And that doesn’t bode well for our growing, and hungry, human population.
According to the Center for Food Safety, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50–70% of their carbon, an important ingredient for healthy soil. Even worse, this carbon ends up in the atmosphere, greatly contributing to global warming.
A lot of this lost carbon comes down to how we treat our land: Industrial agriculture practices such as tilling, excessive using of fertilizers and pesticides and planting mono-crops can all disturb the soil by exposing the carbon in the soil to oxygen. More bad news: A third of the world’s soil has already been degraded.
Healthy soil is important for several reasons. First, healthy soil eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers. For example, glyphosate, which is typically used to kill weeds, can also kill the beneficial microbes on which soil heavily replies on — some research even links glyphosate to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
When farmers degrade soil with bad practices, it compounds the problem: synthetic fertilizers and pesticides more easily run off into lakes, streams, rivers and oceans, putting our drinking water at risk and harming wildlife. Additionally, healthy, non-degraded soil filters our air and water of toxins.
The International Food & Agriculture Organization estimates we only have 60 years of healthy topsoil left, if we keep these business-as-usual practices. By shifting to regenerative practices we can save our soils. Some of these regenerative practices include: composting, planting cover crops, investing in agroforestry and avoiding tilling. All this could help mitigate the climate crisis, making soil the carbon sink it once was before big agriculture threw it off.
As we recognize World Soil Day, we have reason for hope. Today, more and more farmers, ranchers and companies are investing in soil health. Consumers have a role here as well: Talk about soil in the lunchroom or dinner table, know where your food comes from and ask how your farmer’s farm.
We all want an opportunity for a healthier planet, and it all starts right underneath our feet.
Jillian Semaan is the food and environment director at Earth Day Network.