To treat somebody or something like dirt is defined as behaving unfairly, rudely, or with very little respect. It’s a common saying in the English language; one that is quite fitting, considering how we treat dirt.
Erosion and deforestation have taken their toll over the years, washing away one-third of the world’s topsoil. Conventional agriculture grows crops for yield over quality, pumping artificial toxic chemicals into the ground along the way.
Living soil is being destroyed, stripped of all its nutrients, every single day. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements says intensive farming costs us 30 soccer fields of soil every minute.
If soil degradation continues, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says all of the planet’s topsoil will be gone by 2050. That’s right; gone.
We depend on soil for life. It’s a resource that we use to grow 95% of our food supply. Damaged soils have also been found to release CO2, further contributing to climate change. So why do we treat dirt so poorly?
It hasn’t always been this way. According to Garden Media Group’s 2020 Trends Report, Seeing 20/20, the soil was healthy and organically dense before the 20th century. Food was rich in vitamins and minerals, unlike much of what we find in grocery stores today.
In 2004, a landmark study by the University of Texas was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. After comparing the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data for 43 vegetables from 1950 and 1999, researchers discovered declines in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin C.
The study’s author, Donald Davis, and his team blame declining nutritional content on modern agriculture’s obsession with size, growth rate, and pest resistance.
Ancient Farming Techniques
A recent study has European researchers recommending ancient farming techniques to improve soil health, produce abundant and nutritious crops, and absorb greenhouse gases.
Led by Dr. Peter Leinweber of the University of Rostock in Germany, the team looked at the dark, nutrient-rich soil in 12 locations across Northern Europe, including plots of land in Germany, Norway, and Denmark. The earth studied contains incredibly high concentrations of phosphorus, essential for healthy plant growth. But why is the soil so fertile in those specific spots?
Using synchrotron light from the Canadian Light Source (CLS) to analyse the soil samples, the researchers determined the richness and fertility have everything to do with the organic matter ancient farmers had worked into the ground long ago.
The testing found inputs of charred material, but other sources of organic matter were also present. The technology at the CLS helped the research team find applications of peat, animal manure, compost, and human waste.
“In one case, soils from the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea region showed evidence of biochar and animal manure,” says Leinweber. “Most likely cattle excrements, which is strongly supported by archaeological findings of lots of cattle bones in this region.”
The team used carbon dating of the organic materials to determine that the sequence of soil formation took place between the Nordic Bronze Age and the Roman Iron Age in the Baltic Sea region. As for the Norwegian soil samples, the long-lasting tender loving care happened sometime between the Roman Iron Age and the Viking Age.
Leinweber says archaeological literature indicates we have members of a Nordic Early Neolithic farming culture to thank for the ultra-rich soil in these areas. These are people who date back 6,200-4,800 years!
“Those individuals were responsible for the formation of these humus-rich soils in the Baltic Sea region,” he says. “The Scandinavian inhabitants were mostly fishers and hunters, and later may have adopted those agronomic techniques that led to the humus-rich soils in Norway.”
Published in the journal Soil Systems, these findings are proof that sustainable, organic farming practices can ensure high soil fertility for many generations to come and help feed a hungry world nutritious fruits and vegetables.
“We recommend adopting these old-culture techniques for the conservation, and even increase, of soil health and fertility,” Leinweber says.
Soil and the Climate
Beyond feeding an increasing population, healthy soils can help reverse the damage caused by global warming. Soils absorb carbon and filter water; a shift from conventional farming practices to more regenerative ones could remove one tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere for every acre, according to the agricultural think tank, Rodale Institute.
Rodale says we can capture 100% of the current global carbon emissions with a widespread switch to organic farming practices. Abandoning chemicals and replacing them with compost and techniques such as pasture cropping, crop rotation, and no-till farming can help bring us back to our roots and solve so many problems we face today. Whether a large scale farmer or a backyard gardener, we are all critical pieces of this puzzle.
What are we waiting for? The studies are backing it up; the evidence is there. It’s time we see our ancestors for what they were: visionaries. We inherited soil from them that has been able to remain fertile for thousands of years. Let’s do the same for future generations to come.