"Humanity, despite its artistic abilities, sophistication and accomplishments, owes its existence to a six-inch layer of farmable soil and the fact that it rains."—Anonymous
Think about it: our food supply is measured in days, weeks and, at best, months. The oceans are over-fished and hydroponics can't scale up. Lose our ability to grow food on the land and this is how long we have to live. Because of their importance, the UN has declared 2015 as "the international year of soils". Read more about the issues and what we are doing at Better Together Farms below.
“It is estimated that the total annual cost of erosion from agriculture in the USA is about US$44 billion per year, i.e. about US$247 per hectare of cropland and pasture.”(1)
“…fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows.”(2)
The process of increasing the quantity and fertility of topsoil is known colloquially as “growing soil”. Growing soil results in increased organic matter in the soil. Since organic matter is primarily composed of carbon, growing soil sequesters carbon.(3) Currently agriculture (presumably excluding its associated transportation and electricity) is responsible for about 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions.(4) So growing soil can slow, and possibly reverse, one of the main contributors to climate change if enough farmers do it.(5) One of the fundamental principles of organic farming is that healthy soil enables healthy plants which enable healthy animals, both of which enable healthy people. Consequently maintaining long-term soil fertility is part of the Canadian Organic Standards.(6) But just because maintaining fertility is in the organic principles doesn't mean every organic farmer is doing it successfully. When we bought Better Together Farms, I realized the topsoil was depleted: the farmer that worked this land warned me, but you could also see it in the chemical analysis of the soil and the type and density of plants that grew. One important concept of managing fertility is "closing the nutrient loop". The big idea is that everything comes from somewhere, so if you take nutrients off the farm, e.g. in the form of vegetables, then you need to add those nutrients back somehow to preserve soil fertility. I also tested the subsoil when we bought this property and figured it was healthy enough to eventually restore topsoil health. We hired a soil consultant and on her advice spent the equivalent of our first year's vegetable sales on compost to kick-start the fertility in the vegetable field. Ever since then we have been using cover crops to build organic matter and fertility. Are we doing enough at Better Together Farms? No. The vegetable field is good, but the rest of the farm needs work. We want to do it by working with Nature, so we will be putting livestock on these fields and seeding some legumes to build up the ecosystems. This year… pigs! (7)
1: “Land degradation: An overview” as downloaded from the USDA’s NRCS website on 10 Mar 2015.
2: “Dirt Poor: Have fruits and vegetables become less nutritious?” article in Scientific American dated 27 Apr 2011.
3: Soil Carbon Cowboys : https://vimeo.com/244995097.
4: US EPA, 2016, page 5-1: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks-1990-2014. Note that the 8.3% reported here is only for non-CO2 sources. The page refers to others for emissions related to land use and on-farm energy use, but there does not seem to be an accounting of the significant emissions produced in making fertilizers.
6: Organic Production Systems, page iii, item II.2.