To those who have never grown a vegetable, the fact that over 33% of the world’s topsoil is degraded due to commercial agriculture might not seem important. But let me explain why you should be very, very concerned.
Topsoil, as the name implies, is the outermost layer of soil, usually the top 7 to 10 inches. It holds the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms – or microbes. Microbes break down dead plant and animal matter, converting them to nutrients in the soil that plant root systems feed on.
When topsoil is degraded by fertilizers and pesticides used in commercial farming the microbes are killed off and the plants and trees that depend on them for their food starve.
The world is facing a soil crisis. It takes 1000 years for the earth to generate just over an inch of topsoil and at current rates of degradation the world’s top soil could ALL be destroyed within 55 years according to a senior UN official.
Do we have a topsoil crisis?
Intensive farming is destroying “30 soccer fields of soil every minute,” reported Volkert Engelsman from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, with many calling for government intervention to end the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Soil plays a key role in absorbing carbon, and filtering water. Healthy soils can help build resilience to extreme weather events. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has made soil management a key factor in advancing progress in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Despite this, large-scale intensive farming is still actively throwing chemicals into the soil. But extreme weather brought on by climate change is playing havoc with their bottom line. 2019 saw over 19.4 million acres across North America go unplanted because of extreme weather conditions.
Land where the topsoil is partially degraded is land where erosion, drought, or flooding can cause much more significant damage because the natural system of microorganisms is not there to spring back to life. Trees with roots that help the land absorb excess water, don’t survive without microbes feeding their root systems.
What can be done to save the topsoil?
Regenerative agriculture builds soil health by increasing organic matter through practices that hinge around restoring and improving natural ecosystems. It doesn’t just protect the soil, but it works to bring it back to life, capturing carbon in the soil, while offering increased yields, and resilience to climate instability.
Regenerative agriculture recognises every part of the ecosystem and the roles that everything – from microorganisms to birds, livestock, predators and people – contributes to creating healthy environments. It incorporates the natural rhythm and flow of the land into the design of the farm. Unlike commercial farming, regenerative agriculture is all about diversity. From pasture cropping, livestock integration, crop rotation, silvopasture, composting and agroforestry. Regenerating soil viability takes careful consideration of all aspects that go into creating healthy topsoil.
Climate change exacerbates the rate of soil degradation, and soil degradation spurs climate change by reducing the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil. It is a vicious cycle with a quick timeline, and if we aren’t careful climate change will destroy our food production before market forces push commercial farmers to change their operations.
Scientists are calling for government intervention to ban the use of chemicals and alter commercial farming practices. A collaborative approach to this crisis using regenerative agriculture is the only viable strategy that targets soil rejuvenation, food security, and climate change.