Recognizing Our Roots in the Earth

11/29/2017 04:00 pm ET

What’s your connection to the earth? I ask because many who pride themselves on eating sustainably, living lightly on the planet and being mindful in their lifestyle choices are taking important steps to reduce their impact on the planet. You may be among them.

These are choices that make sense and, if taken together, can be very beneficial, having an immense and positive impact on climate, air and water quality, and resource use. These actions drive a deeper understanding of and connection to the planet, but just how connected to the earth are you? By the earth, I’m not speaking metaphorically of the planet, but rather the actual earth under your feet.

Put simply: do you see the value of the soil?

This Tuesday, December 5th, is World Soil Day. The theme this year is “Caring for the planet starts from the ground.” That’s more than a clever pun – it’s a literal fact.

World Soil Day’s activities and programs have been established by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization to communicate the importance of soil quality to food security, healthy ecosystems and human well-being. World Soil Day emerged in 2012 as an organic expression of the critical importance of soil to nations around the world; it was quickly officially adopted by the UN in 2014, a testament to the urgent need to protect the planet’s soil. Soil is so important that it’s part of the United Nation’s mission.

But, soil itself is too often taken for granted. True, it’s underfoot and not often thought about. But, soil isn’t dirt, even though it gets treated that way.

Members of the public don’t think about soil at all. It isn’t recognized as the source of all life, but it is that exactly - the point of origin from which everything terrestrial grows, the incubator that gives birth to all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that we need – not merely to survive, but to thrive.

Our life is literally based on the soil. A staggering 95% of the food we eat is grown in soil, but 33% of our soil globally has already been degraded. Critically, soil isn’t a renewable resource: it takes centuries to create an inch of topsoil. That’s approximately 1,000 years for an inch of healthy soil to develop, complete with strong levels of organic matter, nutrients, fungi and more. That’s 1,000 years of nature’s bounty that we can destroy in just a couple of growing seasons.

That’s why it’s so critical that we take care of the soil. And yet – in prevailing models of industrial agriculture, soil is viewed differently. Inappropriate management, population pressure driving unsustainable intensification, and inadequate governance means that soil is constantly under pressure.

It’s not allowed to work the way it naturally does. It’s adulterated with fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. It’s been stressed, compacted, over-tilled and used to grow monoculture crops like GMO corn and soybeans to the point where its capacity to support life is greatly undercut and compromised. If it’s thought of at all in industrial agriculture, soil is thought of as a medium, a matrix in which to mix GMO seeds, chemical fertilizers and herbicides and water to produce crops that are the product of bio-engineering.

But soil IS the basis of healthful, nutrient rich vegetables and fruits, and that’s thanks to the nutrients inherent in it. Soil not only supports biodiversity, it is so nutrient rich that it is itself biodiverse, hosting fully a quarter of all life on earth: a tablespoon of healthy soil has a higher number of micro-organisms in it than the number of people living now.

And then, healthy soils provide a strong foundation for life in physical terms. Healthy soils store and filter water, making them key to building our resilience to floods and droughts. Healthy soils are also key in the carbon cycle. They help us to mitigate against climate change, and help us to adapt to its conditions. According to FAO, healthy soil can hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere can, helping us meet climate change targets efficiently and extraordinarily cheaply.

Caring for the planet isn’t a high-flown enterprise; it’s something in which everyone has a stake and to which anyone can contribute. Caring for the planet starts from the ground up, and it’s time that we recognize this.

Take some time this December 5th and throughout the year to think about this most important, and most overlooked, resource. Make a commitment this World Soil Day to support policies and farming practices that protect soil. And in your life, take personal steps at home and in your community to protect the earth, and by that, I mean the soil. Take a moment to connect to the soil, touch it and recognize that this is what allows the planet to support you and all the life that flows from it.

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