We are in the midst of the International Year of Soils. Who knew? Most will overlook the global event, but that would be a mistake. Soils deserve our attention.
More familiar environmental issues — water quality, air pollution, endangered species and climate change — command a headline now and then. That is not the case with soil, unless you count scientific journals.
Yet, taking notice of what lies beneath our feet is important to human health and economic prosperity. For example, the journal Nature has published remarkable findings about what soils have yielded to the medical field. Most notable includes the fungus used to create penicillin, and more recently, bacteria capable of killing MRSA and a multi-resistant strain of tuberculosis.
Healthy soils also feed our growing human population. Consider this: Agriculture’s footprint on the planet is so significant that global cropland adds up to approximately the size of South America and grazing land is equivalent to Africa. To keep up with projected population growth, it is predicted that food production will need to double by 2050 to meet future demands.
Ensuring that humanity continues to have living, productive, nourishing soils will require a significant shift in thinking and in action. That begins with awareness about what makes soil healthy.
Healthy soil — not cracked, parched, devoid-of-living-organisms “dirt” — is a dynamic and diverse ecosystem teaming with earthworms, pillbugs, millipedes, ants, amoebas and millions of bacteria, fungi, molds, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods and other organisms that are invisible to the naked eye but critical to sustaining life on earth. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, a single shovel full of healthy garden soil contains more species of organisms than can be found above ground in the entire Amazon rainforest!
Unfortunately, we lose this ecological diversity when soils are overworked and overexposed by activities like intensive farming, deforestation, construction and mining. We also lose soil —and any chemicals, fertilizers and pollution it contains — when it erodes into our waterways. Once there, it creates an imbalance in the aquatic environment.
Without a doubt, it is imperative that we keep soil healthy and on the land. Then it can fulfill its role in retaining and regulating the flow of rain and snowmelt to nearby waterways. It also filters chemicals and pollution before they reach rivers and streams.
Even better, the living organisms inhabiting healthy soil can immobilize and detoxify inorganic materials originating from industrial, municipal and agricultural sources. For example, little unassuming pillbugs have the ability to safely remove heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic from soil.
Additionally, scientists know that healthy soils serve as one of the earth’s most significant repositories for carbon. In fact, there is more carbon residing in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined.
Much is at stake with regard to the quality of our soil. And nowhere are the issues more relevant than in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where soils have become saturated with phosphorus and other chemicals mostly generated by agricultural operations.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that animal waste and fertilizer entering the watershed’s rivers and streams represents the single largest source of bay pollution. That is why six states — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia — and the District of Columbia have agreed to limit pollution reaching the bay.
Some conservation-minded farmers have assumed the role as stewards of our soils; employing methods such as no-till agriculture to cause minimal disturbance to the landscape. They also plant cover crops in between harvests to protect the soil and attract beneficial insects. These methods reduce erosion, increase water retention and support a living and productive ecosystem.
Cities and towns in the watershed also do their part. Across the region, municipalities are adding gardens, parks and other green infrastructure to hinder soil and other runoff from reaching local waterways.
Cooperation by farmers and municipalities in the Bay states is a step in the right direction. However, we all have a role to play in keeping soils healthy to ensure they can continue to provide beneficial services to plants, animals and all of humanity. A rule of thumb for all of us might be to make sure we don’t see any soil at all. That means identifying where bare soil is located, then covering it with grasses, perennial plants, shrubs, trees, mosses, vegetables and even mulch or straw.
Is it said that forests are the lungs of the land. Perhaps our soils serve as the liver — teasing out the bad stuff and sending off what’s good. It is time to give soil its fair due — not only as a resource for producing food for the masses. Like our forests and estuaries, soil is a natural body that when left to abide by nature’s blueprint, can serve as a strong and resilient force in facing urgent environmental challenges.