I just read a new book, The Ground Beneath Us by Paul Bogard (NY: Little Brown, 2017), which examines how humans treat soil/ ground/ earth — and gives us pretty low marks for the way we have paved it, doused it with chemicals, and let it erode.
Two of the issues Bogard addresses are directly relevant to feeding the world. One is the prevalence in the US of chemically-maintained lawn-grass. Turf is, as he points out, the largest US crop by acreage, gulping 200 gallons of potable water per US citizen (that’s 700 million gallons per year in an increasingly thirsty world); lawn grass is also a primary recipient of the chemicals that kill bees, butterflies, birds, earthworms, and the microorganisms that make soil alive (and able to sequester carbon). Because our lawns are so extensive — and such a biotic desert — I have already pointed out in these posts that switching sunny lawn areas around homes and in urban parks to food gardens could have a major impact on alleviating hunger. (Posts 11, 12, 14, 15, 16)
The other issue Bogard discusses that involves the problem of feeding the world is how we treat agricultural soil. For one thing, as American Farmland Trust has been pointing out for decades, cities tend to have been founded near good farmland — so our suburbs have for the last 70 years been paving our most fertile soil, diminishing the acreage available for growing food. Second, where we are still farming, political and economic forces during the same period have pushed towards maximum production of chemically-managed commodity crops. But this has resulted in dead soil, habitat loss for wildlife, poisoned surface- and groundwater, factory farms for livestock, and most dangerous erosion of the topsoil, that precious few inches just beneath our feet in which life thrives and food can be produced. This erosion is not negligible. Bogard cites scientific estimates that at current rates of erosion, there will be topsoil to grow food in for only another 30 to 90 years of harvest (p. 114-116).
If that were to happen, this loss of topsoil would be a show-stopper for much of Earth’s life — starting with us. And note that while we can lose an inch of topsoil in just 4 or 5 years at current rates, it takes between 500 and several thousand years for nature to create a new inch thereof.
There are in fact corrective measures that could be taken, both to build new soil and revive what’s still there but mistreated. They all involve regenerative methods of food production.
I have personal experience with soil revitalization. In 1990, when I was living in Milwaukee, I married a man who had grown up on a farm in the next county (which was fast becoming a suburb). We bought a house whose sunny back patio was paved with concrete. We wanted a kitchen garden, so in Spring we had half the concrete busted up and removed, and we trucked in soil for raised beds from my in-laws’ farm — with their permission, even though they were retired and renting the land to a soybean farmer. I should have been warned by noticing that the whole load of dirt contained only two dying earthworms, but I planted a variety of food crops anyway. They all germinated, and all but the green beans promptly died — clearly the chemicals that had been applied were deadly to all but beans. I was therefore afraid to eat what did grow: I planted some more beans as a cover crop and just dug them all under in the Fall. The next year I added a bunch of composted manure and live compost and planted again, and this time everything lived (though not very vigorously) and I dared to eat it. The third year I again added organic amendments, and by then I was seeing a healthy population of earthworms that had arrived from the adjacent lawn, and my crops thrived. Within a few years I dug out dandelions whose roots were long enough to be reaching below the level where the pavement had been. It is generally considered that it takes three years to transition a plot of ground from chemical to organic growing, and this garden was an example of how this works. By simply withholding chemicals and adding organic amendments full of soil life, dead soil can be revived.
Similar tactics, if industriously pursued, can also build useful topsoil in a very few years. Work compost into sand or subsoil while withholding chemical fertilizers, and you’ll be able to grow certain forbs and grasses that thrive in very low-nutrient conditions. Dig them under, add additional organic amendments, and repeat for three or four years — at the end of which time you’ll have soil you can grow anything in. This should not be news, by the way. In 1899, Peter Kropotkin wrote about Paris-area market gardeners who work in effectively making their soil was so well recognized that “it is now a usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraichers that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy. He himself makes it, and when he moves to another plot he carts his soil away, together with his frames, his water-pipes, and his other belongings.” (Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow, Freedom Press, 1985 edition, p. 65) The Parisians of that time had copious amounts of horse manure to draw on for their soil-building purposes; we do not. But even if avoidable food waste is ended, there would still be plenty of compost ingredients for us to use instead.
Considering how badly we’ve mistreated our soil, it is a very good thing that soil can be revived and rebuilt. But this does not happen by itself. As human activity has caused the harm, so it will take focussed human effort to reverse the damage. The sooner we start switching to growing in regenerative and sustainable ways, the less damage we’ll have to work to undo, and the sooner we’ll be feeding all of us decently.
Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley