Soil is extraordinary, it is the foundation upon which civilization is built. Sometimes disparaged as ‘dirt’ or ‘mud’ it is, in fact, a dynamic living process.
It is composed of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and countless organisms. Amazingly, more creatures live in soil than in any other environment on Earth; one study estimates that a single gram contains 20,000 to 50,000 species.
This rich, dark, mysterious ecological process, that we walk on every day, is core to our planet’s health: cycling water and carbon; absorbing decaying creatures and, of course, being the basis of terrestrial food chains.
It’s also where we grow our food.
Intensive agriculture brutalizes the earth and moves billions of tonnes of soil from the land to the sea. Intensive animal agriculture, more than anything else, treats soil like dirt.
Wendell Berry, a legendary American farmer, activist and radical nature writer recently had a selection of his works compiled for a UK audience in a book edited by Paul Kingsnorth called The World-Ending Fire.
Berry writes passionately about the connection between food and the land, and furiously rallies against human destructiveness and its tragic impacts on the natural world.
He claims ‘eating is an agricultural act’. The food we consume doesn’t just impact upon the organism we eat, but the whole system that created it.
In recent years it was reported that senior UN official Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years.
Speaking shortly after about this number, Soil/Rhizosphere Scientist Emma Tilston said: “The statistic is undoubtedly thought-provoking and has received a lot of attention.
“It is an average for the world, so where farming practices are more damaging than average this figure could be as low as 20 years; but for countries such as the UK where farming practices are better than average, the predicted life span of soil productivity is slightly longer at 100 years.”
This catastrophic demise of the living earth is all the more terrifying considering it takes at least 100 years to create one inch of topsoil. We are destroying our capacity to grow food at an alarming rate.
Human activities have accelerated soil erosion by 10–40 times. As the living fabric of our world is lost, the results are decreases in agricultural productivity and ecological collapse.
Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, described as ‘the most important book you will ever read’ examines previous examples of societies that have wiped themselves out by undermining their ecological foundations.
Soil erosion is one of eight environmental factors that lead to collapse. Four of the others are also directly linked to intensive animal agriculture. His stark warning is that collapse may be closer than we think:
He writes: “In fact, one of the main lesson to be learned from the collapses of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, and those other past societies […] is that a society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power […].
“The reason is simple: maximum population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production mean maximum environmental impact, approaching the limit where impact outstrips resources.”
Diamond goes on to draw conclusions that may be crucial to the survival of our own civilization identifying two distinguishing characteristics of societies that survive.
He says: “The courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions […], the courage to make painful decisions about values.
“Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under newly changed circumstances?
“Which of these treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches?”
At a time when the soil we rely on to live is literally slipping away, out from under us, our dietary choices have never been more important.
Carelessly eating the meat churned out from industrial agriculture isn’t just desecrating the butchered animal. It is carving up Mother Earth herself.
Can seeing our living planet as a whole living entity help us to extend Her compassion and control our harmful behaviors?
Of course – this way of viewing the world is shared by many indigenous peoples.
For some tribes, an innate distrust for industrial agriculture sits alongside their reverence for nature.
In Lost Harvests, Sarah Carter quotes Smohalla of the Nez Percé appalled response to the cultural and economic pressure to turn his people into workers and farmers in the rapidly expanding capitalist system.
He says: “My young men shall never work, men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams.
“You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.
“You ask me to dig for stone. Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.
“You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men. But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair.”