Soil doesn’t need to be a dirty word

Farmland ploughed for commercial agriculture around the world exposes topsoil and increases erosion.

We despise soil. We tolerate endless advertising about how to get rid of dirt. We drag our children out of it. Our municipal bylaws treat it as a nuisance, to be controlled and confined. Every field of corn grown for animal feed or biogas wastes soil. We seem unable to cherish this precious substance with a view to feeding ourselves in the not-too-distant future.

Bill Mollison, the father of the permaculture movement, said, “if you plot the rise of soil scientists against the loss of soil, you see that the more of them you have, the more soil you lose.” This about sums up our love-hate relationship with the stuff from which God reputedly made our ancestor, Adam. No matter how much we know about soil, we can’t seem to bring ourselves from degrading, eroding, desertifying, salinating or finally burying soil under asphalt.

As schools introduce more and more students to gardening, children get a much better idea of where Caesar salad comes from and what French fries are made of. Let’s hope that they will also figure out that without healthy soil we cannot grow healthy food. Meantime, as one soil scientist sadly notes, “saving dirt just isn’t a very sexy issue.”

George Monbiot has furiously accused the British government and the U.K.’s National Farmers Union of “short-termism and stupidity” for their part in the recent defeat of the draft European Union Soil Directive which attempted to protect soils from the evils mentioned above.

‘Short-termism’ makes a good motto for the global economy which rewards farmers and other participants, including politicians, with money earned by destroying soils.

Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank quotes a UN report that 25 per cent of the planet’s land is highly degraded and only 10 per cent is improving. Farmland ploughed for commercial agriculture around the world exposes topsoil and increases erosion.

Writing in the journal, Science, academics from South Africa warn that we are repeating the mistakes of past civilizations, over-exploiting the land until it goes beyond the point of no return, leading to a vicious circle of famine and social disintegration. The same journal carries news of a University of Colorado study using DNA gene technology to find that “soils currently found throughout the region bear little resemblance to their pre-agricultural state.” Or, as Jim Fuglie wrote in The Prairie Blog, “Much of the agricultural produce that fills our supermarkets comes from dead or nearly dead soils.”

Soils are more efficient than our atmosphere and forests together in reducing greenhouse gases and hold more than twice as much water as our rivers and atmosphere combined. Is this more important than more space for housing?

Only government policies that put soil protection above housing prices and automobile fuels and animal feed can get us out of this vicious circle. At the personal level, setting aside wilful ignorance and supporting every person and group working to save soil could make a huge difference.

Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be contacted by e-mail at