- Jim Chamberlin
Celebrate World Soil Day
World Soil Day is December 5th and is dedicated to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and to advocate for the sustainable management of this valuable resource. First established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2002, the 2022 campaign is “Soils: Where food begins.”
From the World Soil Day webpage. “Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation processes threatening nutrition and is recognized as being among the most important problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe. World Soil Day 2022 (#WorldSoilDay) and its campaign "Soils: Where food begins" aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.”
Here is a link to their video:
According to the FAO 38% of the world's soils are severely degraded and with best soil management practices we could increase food production by 58% worldwide. While many see hunger and food production as a crisis, with limits to what the world’s land base can produce, I see soil health as an opportunity for abundance.
Divisions in Agriculture
Many people advocate for small farms and organic production as a way to resolve the current crisis we face. Yet others proclaim that “intensive,” or conventional agriculture, is the only way we can feed the planet. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
The majority of the world is still fed by small scale subsistence farmers. However, this approach is not without its downsides. There is little safety net for these farmers in times of stress, such as drought or other crop losses, and they tend to be less efficient, largely due to the basic economics of scale.
However, these farmers often farm in ways that are better for the environment, with increased diversity and fewer chemical inputs. They are also less susceptible to market fluctuations and supply chain disruptions. Small scale farmers will always have a role to play, but it’s doubtful that small farms can feed a burgeoning world population.
I do believe there’s a point where farms are too big, however the productivity and efficiency of large scale agriculture can’t be dismissed. These farms grow the most of the crops and livestock in developed countries. Technological advances have allowed them to do this with fewer people, less physical labor, and has kept overall food prices low.
Large scale agriculture has created some problems however. Larger equipment has led to farmers “squaring up” field edges and removing windbreaks, leading to less diversity on the landscape. An over reliance on mined and manufactured fertilizers has degraded soil conditions and water quality. Soil degradation has also led to less nutrient dense food and concerns about pesticide residues.
Large scale processing and distribution have made the food system more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, and has limited the marketing options for producers. While we can’t dismiss the benefits of large farms, nor can we dismiss the negative consequences of farming solely for productivity and efficiency.
A Middle Ground
At Happy Dancing Turtle our focus is on advancing the soil health principles, and farming in a way that restores and protects soil function. Soil with a thriving biological component functions in a way that makes nutrients available to plants, yet stores them in the soil profile without leaching into ground and surface waters.
Properly functioning soil can also infiltrate and store more water, increasing resilience to drought and restoring landscape hydrology. Any dominant narrative around the future of farming that doesn’t prioritize protecting and restoring soil health is unsustainable, and fails to fall within the “middle ground.”
The beauty of a focus on soil health is that it doesn’t prescribe or exclude methods or materials used in farming. It simply means that a farmer is working to promote the conditions that allow the life in the soil to thrive. Restoring degraded soil, and switching from the systems that degraded it in the first place can be a long process and if rushed can have dramatic negative results. For example, the country of Sri Lanka recently banned all chemical fertilizers leading to a 50% drop in food production, exacerbating food insecurity and hunger.
However, farmers that have adopted farming practices that support the soil health principles, such as no-till farming, integrating cover crops, using extended crop rotations or adaptive grazing management, have seen increased profits and reduced need for chemical inputs.
On December 5th take time to remember where your food comes from. Be encouraged that the phrase “soil health” is in the lexicon of most farmers and the general public! The next time you see an ad or article on agriculture or the future of food ask yourself, does this meet the “middle ground” test? Does it truly advocate for our soil? Take time to reach out to a farmer implementing soil health practices and thank them. On December 5th, share a meal with your family or friends, and celebrate our soil.
Want to learn more about what promotes soil health? Check out this blog series. Want to dig even deeper (excuse the pun!)--check out the Sustainable Farming Association’s Midwest Soil Health Summit coming up in Alexandria on March 8 and 9, 2023.