How Well Do We Know The Soil Beneath Our Feet?

Published on by Nitin Dani

Does the thought of kissing the ground beneath your feet sound ridiculous? Why should that omnipresent element of nature be given so much respect? What is the big deal with soil, or ‘dirt’ as we think of it?

The simple truth is that soil supports all life on earth. All life on earth depends on the top 20cm of soil, and this soil is depleting at an alarming rate, thanks to exploitative agricultural processes.

A Brief Introduction to Soil

Soil is present all around us and under us, deep into the Earth’s core. It is essentially a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and micro-organisms. All these together support life. Earth's body of soil, called the pedosphere, has, among others, four important functions:

  • as a medium for plant growth
  • as a means of water storage, supply and purification
  • as a modifier of Earth's atmosphere
  • as a habitat for organisms

Soil IS the basis for our food production and will remain so in any given future. What we do need to remember, though, is that large masses of our planet are inhabitable with extreme weather conditions that are not suitable for agriculture.

Thus, it is extremely important to better manage and preserve this resource, wherever we have it in good shape.

What is the Problem With Our Soil?

The destruction of the surface soil or of the topsoil, is one of the biggest ecological problems of the world. Many thousands of hectares of cultivated land are lost each year through erosion, salination, and desertification. 

Use of heavy machinery to till deep into the land, excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and monoculture farming i.e. growing of single crop across vast expanse of land, are key characteristics of modern industrial agriculture. These practices may lead to a high short-term yield, but they ‘kill the soil’ in the long-term, often rendering it ‘lifeless’. Poor farming practices also lead to soil loss through erosion and ‘leaching’ of nutrients from the soil.

As global temperatures rise and the human population expands, there is a higher demand for food, including producing more animal feed to produce more meat. Agricultural, food production and supply chain inefficiencies combined with consumer-side waste also means that nearly 1/3 of the food we produce globally gets wasted, and more food is required to be produced. It’s a vicious cycle.

The result is that an ever-growing part of our planet is vulnerable to desertification - the permanent degradation of land that was once arable.

What is Desertification?

Desertification is a type of land degradation in drylands in which biological productivity is lost due to natural processes or induced by human activities whereby fertile areas become increasingly arid. Climate change. particularly the current global warming, and overexploitation of soil as a result of human activity are currently the two biggest contributors to this problem.

Urbanization, mining, farming, and ranching – all examples of human activity – have driven-up land degradation by 30-35 times the normal historical rate, while desertification affects over 100 countries, mostly hitting some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations, according to National Geographic.

And Finally, a Few Words About Soil Carbon

When we damage soil, we are not only destroying our food source - we are actually releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.

"The top one meter of the world’s soils contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, making it a major carbon sink alongside forests and oceans."

Soils play a key role in the carbon cycle by soaking up carbon from dead plant matter. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and pass carbon to the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose.But human activity, in particular modern agriculture, is causing carbon to be released from the soil at a faster rate than it is replaced. This net release of carbon to the atmosphere is a significant contributor to global warming.

There seems to be hope, though. And this is the subject of “a new soil documentary that promises a powerful solution to the growing effects of climate change” on our land.

'Kiss the Ground' Film Screening

Green Initiatives' 122nd film screening, Kiss the Ground, is a full-length documentary that sheds light on an alternative approach to farming called “regenerative agriculture” that has the potential to balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies, and feed the world.

Kiss the Ground reveals that, by regenerating the world’s soils, we can completely and rapidly stabilize Earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems and create abundant food supplies. Using compelling graphics and visuals, along with striking NASA and NOAA footage, the film artfully illustrates how, by drawing down atmospheric carbon, soil is the missing piece of the climate puzzle.