By Thomas McCormick
The soil provides a key indicator to determine if societies and economies will thrive or fail. Look at how civilizations treat the soil that produces their food and you get to the basis of sustainability. In her book The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson examines how agriculture practices throughout the world have stripped carbon and fertility from the soils. Plowing causes the breakdown of organic matter and has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Western civilization began in the Fertile Crescent, a strip of fertile land stretching from the Nile to the Tigress and Euphrates rivers. The great civilizations of Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, and Phoenicia arose here. Egypt developed one of the first ploughs about eight thousand years ago and designs have been improved ever since.
The benefit and problem with ploughing the soil is that the process brings organic matter and other nutrients to the surface. Organic matter and the carbon it contains is essential for soil fertility as it holds soil biota, nutrients, and water, making the later two available for plants. Ploughing exposes organic matter to the air, causing its break down and the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Thousands of years of ploughing in the Fertile Crescent and throughout the world have turned previously fertile areas into wastelands.
Modern societies’ destruction of the soil goes beyond ploughing. The use of inorganic (chemical) fertilizers results in the destruction of soil microbe communities. Much of industrialized agriculture subscribes to the notion that Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Phosphate (or NPK) are the only essential nutrients necessary for plant growth. This approach ignores a growing body of knowledge that a soil food web composed of microorganisms and fungi, inhabit the soil and have evolved with plants to provide them with nutrients and ward off pathogens. The addition of chemical fertilizers breaks down connections within the soil food web. Without this support network, more NPK must be applied.
Keep in mind that we have been practicing this type of agricultural for less than 100 years. What we have been doing is mining the soil, stripping it of its mineral and biologic fertility.
If we examine the state of the soils that grow our food the outlook is dim. If this were the complete picture, our long-term sustainability would be precarious at best.
There is good news for society which depends upon the long-term fertility of the soil. Farmers are learning to view the soil as not just a mixture minerals, but as a complex living community, one that can be tremendously productive if not constantly subjected to consant ploughing. As they increase soil fertility, new farming methods are increasing the amount of carbon in the soil. It is estimated that US Cropland could absorb 5% of US carbon emissions (Ohlson, see above). We are learning about the soil food web and how to work with it to produce healthy plants without inorganic fertilizers. These are silver linings for the state of our soil, and human sustainability.
Low-impact, muscle-powered organic agriculture played a substantial role in the self-destruction of most ancient civilizations. Go to Google Images and search for “Uruk,” King Gilgamesh’s magnificent city. A barren moonscape surrounds ancient stone ruins.
Here are some FREE resources to look at:
Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years This is W. C. Lowdermilk’s powerful 44-page pamphlet on soil conservation. It provides a number of shocking and unforgettable photographs that illustrate soil erosion catastrophes caused by agriculture over the centuries.
Topsoil and Civilization is a 1955 book on the history of civilization versus topsoil. It’s a good book.
Man and Nature was published in 1867. George Perkins Marsh was a diplomat in Italy, and he explored the sites of many ruined civilizations. It was a stunning experience, because the same processes were currently underway in the U.S.
The Amish and Mennonites are among the most caring, low-impact organic farmers in the world. This short summary of a PBS show notes that, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, they have lost half of their topsoil in the last 250 years.
The Oil We Eat This essay by Richard Manning is an intelligent and eloquent history-flavored analysis of the catastrophic design defects in agriculture. The domestication of wheat was probably the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet (or was it the Green Revolution?). Industrial agriculture is a system for transforming oil into food.
Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F. H. King, who visited China in 1909, and described organic agriculture that was largely done with human muscle-power. Every day, many peasants hauled carts of sewage from the town to the fields. It took lots of labor to remain one step ahead of hunger. The contents of the book can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.
Topsoil and Civilization, by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter, takes readers on a tour of ancient civilizations, and describes how soil mining contributed to their self-destruction.
Richard Manning’s book, Against the Grain, discusses serious issues in agriculture. He concludes, “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. It does not exist.”
Dave Montgomery’s book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, provides a geologist’s perspective on the soil destruction resulting from agriculture.