Story Time – The Story of Soil
Posted on 26 September 2010
Throughout my Permaculture journey I hear some incredible stories. A few of them help me enormously. By simplifying them I feel they are easier to share and can still have a massive impact on the way people think – or simply remind them of the basic connections they have lost in life.
So, today’s story is the story of soil.
Once upon a time (around 10 000 years ago actually) humans, likely to be living somewhere in the fertile belt, started ploughing their crops as an experiment. Agriculture was born! They noticed that their crops now grew even faster and bigger than before and were probably quite excited and proud of themselves. They would continue to plough the soil year after year but the crops would produce less and less until eventually they would have to move on to a new patch of land and start again. This produced desertification.
This pattern continued, more or less, until around 150 years ago when humans discovered that they could basically dissolve rock minerals in to a water soluble form – fertiliser. This was around the same time as the discovery of petroleum. This was amazing!! So now the humans could plough faster, harder and longer in larger fields and could keep the plants healthier by feeding their roots with minerals. Problem fixed!
By the late 1950s farmers were using fertilisers everywhere on their mono-culture crops and using petroleum run tractors to help them cover large areas of land they wanted to heavily till. But something was happening. Weeds seemed to be taking over and many humans thought these were robbing the crops of the nutrients in the soil because the crops seemed weaker and were attracting lots of pests. So, these clever humans (specifically the ones in the Chemical Companies this time) decided to invent pesticides and herbicides. Perfect! Problem fixed again!
Within a short amount of time the next problem to emerge for farmers were fungal issues and the next solution was invented – fungicide.
Now it has come to the point that those clever humans with all their solutions to their problems have invented another way to allow plants to grow in degraded soil and remain resistant to pests, weeds and fungus – we’ve invented and hybridised plants – Genetically Modified Food.
What do you think will be the next solution? Genetically Modified Humans? Will they be designed to be able to eat tasteless food, covered in chemicals and with no nutritional value and still survive?
… and so the genetically modified humans lived happily ever after.
I’m sorry my story doesn’t end in a very realistic way. But in truth, it hasn’t ended yet… there is still time to learn from our mistakes.
Let me share some of what I have learnt about soil recently. Firstly, it is ALIVE. It is full of microscopic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, arthropods and so much more! These little critters work for free – improving soil structure, producing nutrients and defending against disease. When the soil is dead, it is called dirt and this is what industrialised plants are grown in, supplemented by fertilisers etc. Think simply – Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy food, healthy humans.
So, where did humans go wrong? Actually, right back at the beginning when they assumed ploughing was doing good. What was really happening when the soil was being turned over was that all these hard working little critters, bacteria, fungi, etc. were suddenly close in proximity to the surrounding plant roots, giving the plants a jolt of nutrients (bacteria is apparently 90% Nitrogen) but at the same time killing them. Over time, with the genocide of soil microbes, the soil could not sustain life and the farmer had to move on to fertile ground.
Ok, so I guess you are wondering how fertiliser worked then?? Well, fertiliser adds nutrients such as Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous in a water soluble form that can be taken up by the plants’ tap roots. The tap roots are how the plants hydrate themselves, with water. Normally plants get all these nutrients through their hair roots through a symbiotic process with soil biota but since these were all killed off through ploughing farmers needed to come up with a solution. So, the salt based fertilisers forces plants to drink mineral soup through their tap root and as a consequence they don’t develop a healthy root structure. The plant becomes a junkie – unable to live without its fertiliser but resulting in death anyway :(.
Sorry, that was a bit depressing… but rehab is available! More on that later…
Now you need to understand a little about addiction. When plants are weak and addicted to chemicals, pests love to take advantage of them. And what easier way for pests to multiply than gorging themselves in rows of weak monoculture crops? When soils are degraded and all their helpful critters are disappearing, weeds see a great opportunity to try to replenish the soil.
What?! Stop! Weeds? Replenish? Ummm… well, weeds are simply responding to conditions in the soil. Yep, it’s time to start reading your weed-signs! Like reading signs in our bodies – cracked skin, acne, yellow eyes – they all mean something is imbalanced in our bodies nutritionally and the same goes for soil. Pig weed and thistle means soil is high in nitrates which probably means a history of fertiliser. Blady grass indicates deficiency of potassium which may mean the soil has been burnt. Dandelion indicates too much nitrogen and anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions and it’s trying to build carbon in the topsoil. The weeds are trying to produce lots of seeds and carbon so that the soil is able to support fungus and bacteria and a return of health.
What are the lessons to be learnt?
- We should not assume the founders of agriculture understood what they were doing.
- We should stop treating the symptoms.
- We should work with nature instead of against it.
- We should take our soil to rehab – Start composting to give life to soil again.
To get started composting, see my previous post.