Story Time – The Story of Soil continued
Posted on 18 October 2010
Hopefully you will remember a previous post on the Story of Soil which describes how agricultural practices have evolved to today’s dependency on fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Today I have a few follow up topics about this partially thanks to your contributions. The first is regarding the debate on whether organic can feed the world, the second is regarding oxygenating soil and the third is about learning from the past.
Can organic feed the world?
According to this article (and my own views), yes organic can feed the world but we need to change how we eat and farm. Last week Australian television held a debate about organic food, raising questions like ‘how is organic certified/defined?’, ‘why is organic more expensive?’, ‘what are farmers supposed to do when plagued by a pest?’, etc. These are all very valid questions with a lot of emotional responses but I’d like to provide you with what I believe are the most convincing arguments. Note that I’m not tackling the health benefits to keep this post short.
1. We are at peak oil production which means that very soon oil will become rare and expensive. Fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, etc. are oil products. When oil becomes too expensive and eventually runs out we will have to find an alternative so why not go to that alternative (organic) now for a smoother transition?
2. People need to stop thinking that conventional farms can simply become organic by ceasing to use pesticides, herbicides, etc. Fields of monocrops can not be organic. The way farming is done needs to be changed. Increased diversity means increased stability. We can’t delay going organic for fear of losing crops – this will happen eventually anyway.
3. Consumers need to understand that food is ridiculously cheap in terms of money right now but expensive in terms of the environment and future scenarios. I’ve read various figures (so check for yourself), but only around 9% of an American’s income goes toward food costs today compared to around 20% in the 1950s and up to 30% in the 1930s (and back then, they weren’t even eating meat daily because of the costs). The attitude that organic food is too expensive and people can’t afford it really relates to their inability to prioritise and give up their materialistic lifestyles.
Recently a friend raised some interesting points with me about this topic. He said his father used to say the plouging or digging was to introduce oxygen to the ground as well as make it more friable under frost action.
It is true that soil needs oxygen and should be friable. I’m no expert on this so would love other comments, but to my knowledge, air in soil contains oxygen for plant roots (helps them to absorb nutrients) and soil organisms to respire. In fact, most of the beneficial soil-dwelling bacteria are aerobic bacteria (need oxygen) and can’t survive in soil that is too compacted or too wet. When considering the amount of oxygen in your soil you need to think about the type of soil you have – Sand has good aeration and drainage as it has large spaces between the particles, allowing air and water to move easily; Clay has poor aeration and drainage as it is compacted with only tiny spaces between particles; Silt has some of the qualities of both sand and clay; Loam has good aeration, drainage and storage capacity for water and nutrients.
You can oxygenate your soil without turning it. Try loosening the soil using a spading fork (to create holes in to your soil). Leave marble-sized to golf ball sized clumps of earth to give better aeration and drainage, avoid destroying the structure of the soil and killing off all those beneficial microbes and fungi.
Deep watering helps the soil breathe much better than frequent, shallow watering.
Learning from the past
My friend also reminded me that we shoudn’t be too harsh on our forebears. I agree that this isn’t very useful or constructive in moving forward, but we can learn a lot from the mistakes of the past and present and make changes accordingly. As my friend said, ‘I am sure a lot of what we are doing now will look a bit stupid in the future.’ So, anything we do today should also be done cautiously and with consideration for future generations.