When you ate your last meal, did you stop to think about the huge role soil played in building the food on your plate? Just about everything we eat starts with plants, so the importance of soil in our food system cannot be understated. In fact, all land-based vegetation on our planet relies on soil to provide the water and nutrients necessary for sustenance and growth. In turn, we depend on healthy soil to produce the crops we require to feed our ever-growing population.
Soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem that requires tender care in order to remain fruitful. Unfortunately, conventional agriculture has greatly disturbed this ecosystem, depleting its nutrients and failing to replenish them. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 25% of the planet’s land is highly degraded and only 10% is improving!
Food Tank, a non-profit organization dedicated to pushing for food system change, contends that land degradation is primarily caused by overharvesting and deforestation, which both lead to erosion and loss of fertile topsoil (the upper layer of soil containing the highest concentration of organic matter, which gives plants the nutrients they need to grow). For example, Brazil loses 55 million tons of topsoil every year due to commercial production of soybeans.
However, this pressing issue can be resolved if we take necessary actions to maintain and improve soil quality. The process will take years, but Food Tank recognizes steps already being taken to save our soil. Michigan State University, for instance, is working on examining the ability of perennial grain crops to prevent soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa. In the United Kingdom, the Soil Association inspects organic farms and businesses while supporting and promoting best practices by farmers. Books such as Roland Bunch’s Restoring the Soil and documentaries like Dirt! The Movie increase public awareness of the land deterioration problem and present sustainable solutions. You can see Food Tank’s full list of 14 distinguished soil-saving efforts here.
If the world is able to learn from these endeavors and implement soil protecting techniques in all agricultural activity, we can protect the land used for food production, which takes up almost half of the planet’s land surface. Furthermore, in successfully maintaining healthy, fertile soil we may even be on our way to sustainably providing food for all for years to come.