SCIENCE FOCUS

Destroying the soil is going to be the death of us if we're not careful

War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Carry on destroying the land, and we're all going to starve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 March, 2015, 8:54am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 10:56am

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we're finished if we don't address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

It's literally and - it seems - metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: "Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it."

The issue hasn't changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops.

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, six million hectares of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12 million hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.

The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation. A paper in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th-century French lake. It reveals that the intensification of farming over the past century has increased the rate of soil erosion 60-fold.This is the International Year of Soils, but you wouldn't know it.

War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere. In its early stages, globalisation enhances resilience: people are no longer dependent on the vagaries of local production. But as it proceeds, spreading the same destructive processes to all corners of the earth, it undermines resilience, as it threatens to bring down systems everywhere.Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison. What appear to be great crises are slight and evanescent when held up against the steady trickling away of our subsistence.

It's not as if we are short of solutions. While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.

Even better are methods that fall under the heading of permaculture - working with complex natural systems rather than seeking to simplify or replace them. Remarkable yields of fruit and vegetables have been achieved in places that seemed unfarmable: 1,100 metres above sea level in the Austrian alps or in the Jordanian desert.

But our commitment to destructive short-termism appears to resist all evidence and logic. Never mind life on earth; we'll plough on regardless.

The Guardian