Soil isn't really something I ever thought I would be writing about. I've always enjoyed doing a bit of digging or jumping in muddy puddles and squelching through wet fields in my wellies. And I've always had a special love for that smell of rain falling after a period of warm, dry weather. It's got a very pleasing word - 'petrichor' coming from petro meaning 'of rocks' and ichor 'the fluid which flows like blood through the veins of the gods'. Aside from that, I've not really given it a second thought...
But we depend on this soil to grow everything that we need to survive - 95% of our food comes from soil - and we are quite literally sucking the life out of it. When we think about things that are beneficial to the economy we think in monetary terms. If you ask anyone to give you a definition of 'economy', the planet probably won't quite factor into an explanation. Satish Kumar defined a truer definition of the word economy at the Resurgence Festival of Wellbeing last weekend.
If you are to look at the word economy and break it down into its individual Greek origins you have 'oikos' meaning 'house' and 'nemein' meaning manage. If you take this in a broader sense and think of our home being the Earth, managing this Earth requires all species to live together in harmony and manage the resources available efficiently. We do anything but manage the resources available to us efficiently, thinking that somehow it is someone else's problem to fix. We burn our way through finite resources. We trash the landscape to build and develop.
Intensive farming can produce crops and animal protein much more quickly and at cheaper cost, but the damage that is inflicted on the soil in this process is not economically sustainable. Not only this but our imports of animal feed and other food products are also contributing to soil damage overseas.
Colossal pig factory farms spew their waste out onto the land, and huge lagoons are created in order to take the waste. This waste contains not only excrement, but also dead piglets, antibiotics, bacteria...the list goes on. The bacteria found in these lagoons pollutes the soil, and the fumes saturate the atmosphere with noxious gases causing serious health problems to nearby residents.
The production of soy is equally as damaging to the environment and nearly all commercially available meat contains soy. Our ever-growing demand for meat fuels this soy production which is jeopardizing the Amazon, the Atlantic Forests of South America, the Brazilian Cerrado and other large, fragile ecosystems. The production of soy causes not only damage to these environments but also to the soil. Soil compaction occurs during soy production, which damages the land, often to the point where it is no longer of use. Soil compaction in its most basic terms results in the soil being compressed to the point where the space for air and water is significantly reduced. With less air and water, crop production will begin to decrease and eventually the land will become redundant.
We take from the soil without putting nutrients back in and we expect to be able to continue to keep growing nutrient rich food from it. One third of the world's arable soils are degraded and even closer to home the UK countryside currently only has 100 harvests left in it. However, it is not too late for us to save it. A farmer I met had recently taken over an intensively worked farm. He could not find a single worm in the fields. I asked how hard it was to get it back into shape and he responded that really it was quite easy 'to just give nature a helping hand'. He now has over 200 plant species and the soil is once again full of worms.
So maybe it's time to sit up and pay attention to those most animalistic of responses to the rain falling on the dry ground. Maybe it's a deep instinctual response to this most life-sustaining material. Maybe it's time we started to treat the soil as preciously as the fluid that ran through the veins of the gods.