Friday, April 1, 2016

The Most Important Concept

Let’s say you discovered a concept. This isn’t even a new concept, just one new to you. And let’s say it caught your eye, changed your worldview, and occupied your thoughts for some time. And let’s say that through that thinking process you discovered that this is the most important concept that there is, that without this, life on Earth would cease to exist. Then you look around and see that despite this concept being fairly well understood in the scientific community, almost no one else understands it. And not understanding it is driving people’s actions in a way that is causing a huge amount of long term harm. What would you do? Would you harp on it quite a bit? Me too.

So what is this concept? Quite simply: Soil is a living organism.

Okay…that doesn’t seem so ground breaking. But let’s take a moment to examine this, maybe look at it from a slightly different angle that might clarify things. You are a living organism. You are composed of a tight association of smaller organisms that all have the same DNA. Each organism has a job, a purpose, to help the whole system function optimally.

Soil is composed of a tight association of smaller organisms that all have different DNA. Each organism has a job, a purpose, to help the whole system function optimally.

Let’s take the biological approach. To understand an organism, you need to understand its food source, how it acquires its food, and the role it occupies in the ecosystem it occupies. Let’s deal with those one at a time.

What is soil’s food source? Well, nothing, you might say. The different organisms eat each other. Well, yeah, sort of. But what happens to an animal when you stop giving it food. It begins consuming its own body, losing weight in the process. As it loses weight, it loses functionality, until the whole system is no longer able to function and it perishes. Our soils worldwide are doing exactly this. Soil feeds on decaying organic matter. Wood, roots, leaves, and sticks form the bulk of soil’s diet, but dead insects, rotting mushrooms, and feces provide sustenance as well.

How does soil acquire its food? In a natural ecosystem, it falls to the ground from the vegetation growing above. It doesn’t matter whether it is a forest or a grassland or something in between. Everything dies eventually and gravity delivers it to the soil to be consumed.

That little pile of mostly decomposed vegetation at the top
was living clover just one month before this picture was taken
What role does soil play in its ecosystem? Disease causing organisms aside, the organisms that evolve in an ecosystem evolve to play a role in the healthy version of that ecosystem. Soil needs decaying organic matter to survive, right? So why doesn’t it just kill all the plants and feast? That’s a lot of food in the short term and no food in the long term. So it could just keep the plants sickly and they would drop small numbers of leaves frequently and die early. That is a better long term solution, but it is a recipe for a permanent diet of not quite enough. No, anyone who has tried to maintain a landscape in their yard knows that the more plants you have and the more lush and healthy they are, the more debris they drop to the soil surface. So soil has a vested interest in keeping the plants lush and healthy and growing as fast as possible. How do they do this? They break down the nutrients in the decaying organic matter and feed them back to the plants so they have what they need to grow more.

Just how poorly is this concept understood? In 1975, Masanobu Fukoka wrote The One Straw Revolution. The book chronicles his decades long quest to get academia to understand the concept that the organic matter needs to be returned to the soil. We still aren’t there. In fact, I recently found this great video from a soil scientist at the Soil Conservation Service trying to convince farmers that soil is alive and needs to be treated as such. We are just not getting it.
And as we starve our soils, they become emaciated and unable to do their job, so we dump fertilizers on them, hoping that the chemicals will make up the difference. But it can’t really. Living soil does so much more than just hand out nutrients. It stores massive amounts of carbon in its body (finished humus, the final form of organic matter in soil is over 50% carbon), it serves as a sponge to soak up rainwater and reduce runoff and erosion. It works with the plants to increase resiliency and reduce the impact of diseases. As we let our soils waste away and die, our fields lose productivity, and right at a crucial time when we are trying to figure out how to feed a lot more mouths.

So remember, take care of your soil and feed it with lots and lots of decaying organic matter. Our lives all depend on it.

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