It can be easy to take the soil beneath our feet for granted. Yet its health has always been a key to our survival.
Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
We kick it. We stomp it. We sweep it out of our homes. We even use its name as an insult. Yet by doing so, we undervalue one of our most important resources.
Dirt’s connection to agriculture—and our ability to survive—is what makes it so vital, according to the Global Landscapes Forum, which meets yearly to discuss sustainable landscapes worldwide that affect 1 billion or more people. But agriculture is not the only reason it is significant.
“Sustainable landscapes are essential for the future we want: for food, livelihoods, health, renewable materials, energy, biodiversity, business development, trade, climate regulation and water,” the organization stated.
When people have healthy soil, they produce food for themselves. Better food security brings more stability, and conflicts over scant resources, such as those taking place in Africa and the Middle East, are less likely. A fed population is a happy population. All of these factors affect a nation’s ability to thrive—and the planet as a whole.
“Throughout human history, our relationship with the soil has affected our ability to cultivate crops and influenced the success of civilizations,” a Nature Education article stated. “This relationship between humans, the earth, and food sources affirms soil as the foundation of agriculture.”
In short, when everyone’s basic needs are met, the world is a much more peaceful place.
Over the last century, civilization has been on the warpath to destroy this most precious commodity.
“Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years,” the World Wildlife Fund reported. According to the organization, it takes 1,000 years to form just one centimeter of topsoil.
“The effects of soil erosion go beyond the loss of fertile land,” it further stated. “It has led to increased pollution and sedimentation in streams and rivers, clogging these waterways and causing declines in fish and other species. And degraded lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding. Sustainable land use can help to reduce the impacts of agriculture and livestock, preventing soil degradation and erosion and the loss of valuable land to desertification.”
Time magazine agreed in the article “What If the Soil Runs Out?”
“People don’t always think about how [soil is] connected with so many other things: health, the environment, security, climate, water,” the outlet stated. “For example, agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use: we pour most of our water straight onto the ground. If soil is not fit for purpose, that water will be wasted, because it washes right through degraded soil and past the root system. Given the enormous potential for conflict over water in the next 20-30 years, you don’t want to exacerbate things by continuing to damage the soil, which is exactly what’s happening now.”
The actions of farmers are at the heart of this debate. Their agricultural practices—such as allowing water runoff to spread pesticides and chemicals, using genetically modified seeds to increase crop yield, overploughing and not allowing the land to rest—are often blamed for the damage caused to Earth’s topsoil. While agriculture workers are in the best position to improve the problems with the soil, profit-driven food production systems make it difficult if not impossible.
“Farmers rely heavily on credit to buy the seeds, fertilizer, machinery, livestock and other inputs that keep their farms running,” FarmAid stated. “If they can’t secure affordable and timely credit, they face an economic uncertainty that threatens the survival of their farms.”
With little money left, soil improvement practices become unsustainable.
“Soil is not costed into food, which means that farmers don’t have the financial capacity to invest in their soil to turn the situation around,” Time reported. “Crop breeding is exacerbating this situation. Modern wheat varieties, for example, have half the micronutrients of older strains, and it’s pretty much the same for fruit and vegetables. The focus has been on breeding high-yield crops which can survive on degraded soil, so it’s hardly surprising that 60% of the world’s population is deficient in nutrients like iron. If it’s not in the soil, it’s not in our food.”
Without good soil, you cannot have well-nourished and healthy people since the foods they eat—vegetables, fruits, legumes and even the animals that eat the plants—rely on it.
Again, fed people are happy people.
Yet the soil has an even bigger connection to the well-being of mankind than just health.
“More than 10 million people have abandoned their homelands due to environmental issues including drought, soil erosion, desertification and deforestation,” the Food and Agriculture Organization wrote. “Avoiding soil degradation and copying with long-term droughts can therefore change the future of human migration.”
Healthy soil ensures that the environment itself flourishes, which in turn brings stability by helping prevent migration. When people are able to grow food to feed their families, they tend to thrive where they are instead of looking to relocate.
The Global Conflict Risk Index is also evidence of this. It examines five risk areas—political, security, social, economy, and geography and environment—to measure the statistical risk of violent conflict within a nation. Over half of the index’s 24 indicators can be tied in some way to the soil health of a nation.
And the overall state of the soil, land and agriculture can impact the development and continuation of government systems and vice versa, as a piece posted by the American Geophysical Union pointed out.
The article began by tying democratic elections to deforestation stating, “Politicians are trading trees for votes.”
“In the new study,” the article continued, “researchers examined satellite images of forest cover and data on the national elections of every country in the world between 1970 and 2005. They found that rates of forest cover loss are substantially higher during election years, especially when the outcome of the election is uncertain.”
The study’s political science researcher Luke Sanford, who examined the correlation between politics and the physical world, “found that election years are associated with 50 percent higher rates of deforestation than non-election years, especially in countries that have unstable governments and nationally owned rainforests, like Brazil and Kenya. ‘In Kenya, there’s been over 50 percent forest cover lost since 1990 and the majority of that happened during the election years,’ Sanford said.
“The study suggests the amount of deforestation that occurs during an election year often depends on how competitive the election is. Sanford found that close elections are associated with higher rates of deforestation. Targeting key constituencies is more important when elections are competitive, he said. In Kenya, for example, votes are aggregated at the county level. Kenya’s densely populated northern counties often determine the outcome of the country’s national elections. As a result, most of the forested land allocated for commercial use in Kenya is located within these counties.”
The article continued: “When a country transitions from being an autocracy to a democracy, the rate of forest cover loss increases, according to Sanford’s preliminary results. In an autocracy, such as a dictatorship or monarchy, the number of people who can remove a leader from power is very small. ‘When the autocrat wants to pay those people off to stay in power, giving them some rural forested land isn’t really useful,’ Sanford said.
“But when a country switches to a democracy, smallholder farmers who had no say in the government now have a strong say in the government, he said. ‘As a result, if a politician wants to remain in power they have to start paying attention to what those people want, and a lot of those people want some land.’”
So, what is it about land and, in particular, its soil that makes it so valuable?
“Soil is made up of minerals from rocks, organic matter from plants and animals, and the many species living in the soil,” biologist Becca Smithers wrote on the website Science Made Simple. “Earthworms keep soils clean by digesting the soil and their movement keeps the soil fresh, as do moles. Bacteria in the soil recycle nitrogen and carbon, fungi transport nutrients and help to decompose organic matter. Intricate root systems of plants and trees provide shelter and food for lots of organisms.”
In 1945, author Karl B. Mickey wrote in his book Man and the Soil that the topsoil “which sustains life lies in a thin layer of an average depth of seven or eight inches over the face of the land; the earth beneath it is as dead and sterile as the moon. If that layer of topsoil could be represented on a 24-inch globe it would be as a film three-millionths of one inch thick. That thin film is all that stands between man and extinction.”
In addition to its importance for growing food and thus stabilizing regions and nations, it helps human beings as a source of cures for diseases.
“By some estimates, the earth harbors more than a trillion individual microbe species,” Wired reported. “A single gram of soil alone can contain 3,000 bacterial species, each with an average of four million base-pairs of DNA spooled around a single circular chromosome.” These bacteria are critical to disease research.
Yet, according to the outlet, “If the chance of finding a new antibiotic in a random soil screen was once one in 20,000, by some estimates the odds have dwindled to less than one in a billion. All the easy ones have already been found.
“Historically, it’s a search riddled with accidental discoveries. The fungal strain that was used to manufacture penicillin turned up on a moldy cantaloupe; quinolones emerged from a bad batch of quinine; microbiologists first isolated bacitracin, a key ingredient in Neosporin ointment, from an infected wound of a girl who had been hit by a truck. Other antibiotics turned up in wild, far-flung corners of the globe: Cephalosporin came from a sewage pipe in Sardinia; erythromycin, the Philippines; vancomycin, Borneo; rifampicin, the French Riviera; rapamycin, Easter Island. By persuading the right microbes to grow under the right condition, we unearthed medicinal chemistry that beat back our own microscopic enemies.” The more we degrade the quality of our soil, the more we degrade our chances to maintain good health.
Perhaps The Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot put it most succinctly: “We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it.”
The importance of preserving soil and how much our survival depends on it is not a new idea.
Written thousands of years ago, Genesis—the first book of the Bible—describes how dependent man is on the earth underneath his feet.
In agricultural terms, the dust is most mineral-rich part of the soil. These particles, known as colloids, are removed by erosion and misuse of the land. Colloids hold the bulk of the minerals that form the structure of the soil—and thus the “structure” of plants, animals and humans.
Also in Genesis, the first humans are told to “dress” and “keep” the Garden of Eden (2:15). Note that the original Hebrew words for dress and keep mean “to work” and to “protect” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). Man was charged with protecting the environment in which he was placed.
The Bible also extensively describes a coming time when war will end and peace will be ensured in part through a focus on proper agricultural processes. Isaiah 2:4 summarizes this time: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The way in which this peaceful time will come to pass is a central theme of the Bible. It is the good news of a coming supergovernment—the Kingdom of God—that will usher in this peace. This Kingdom will, as the verse in Isaiah states, teach people to care for the Earth, which includes proper farming practices and soil preservation techniques. In turn, these efforts will contribute to an era free of conflict.
These descriptions in the Bible, however, can seem to be mere words with no proof. But you can be certain of God’s existence and know that the Bible is His inspired Word. To get started, read the booklets Does God Exist? and Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven?