With the exception of a handful of species thriving near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, the sun is the source of all life on earth. Plants derive all their energy from the sun—it’s the catalyst for photosynthesis. If you’re an herbivore—a vegetarian or a vegan—then you’re as close as a human can get to deriving your energy from the sun. Of course, most humans aren’t herbivores; we evolved to be omnivores, obtaining our energy from both plant and animal food sources. But, as the saying goes, “you are what you eat eats.” So even if you’re a staunch carnivore, your food eats food that obtains its energy from the sun.
There’s another crucial element in the life-creation process, though, and it’s one that for the last hundred years or so humanity as a species has neglected: soil. Soil is just as crucial to life on this planet as the sun is (although, again, the ocean provides a unique exception or two here—we’re looking at you, seaweed). We’re carbon-based beings, after all, and the soil is where the majority of earth’s carbon is sequestered . . . or, at least, it’s where it should be sequestered. But that’s not what’s happening. Right now, the majority of earth’s carbon is concentrated in our atmosphere, leading to devastating climate change and impending disaster.
The bad news is that, for the last several decades, we’ve been horrible stewards to our soil, failing to cultivate and cherish one of our planet’s most precious resources. But there’s good news, too: it’s not too late to do something about the problem—but if we’re going to act, we must act fast.
The Soil Problem
In October of 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an alarming statement: We have only 12 years left to work to limit global temperature increases before climate change becomes irreversible.
This statement garnered a great deal of media and political attention, but it wasn’t the first time the U.N. had tried to warn of impending environmental catastrophe. Four years earlier, in 2014, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture organization contextualized the problem in a different way: If the current rate of soil degradation continues, we may have just 60 harvests left before all of the world’s topsoil is depleted. At the time this estimate was made, one-third of the world’s topsoil had already been depleted. That was five years ago, so let’s call it 55 harvests left.
What is the cause of this drastic depletion of our soil? Here are just three of the contributors:
- Chemical-Heavy Farming Techniques. Chemical use in U.S. crops peaked in the early 1980s when Monsanto patented and released glyphosate, a potent herbicide and desiccant. While usage may have peaked around the time of its release, it has not seen a significant decline since then. In addition to its widely documented health effects, glyphosate, commercially marketed as Roundup, leaches into the soil, poisoning both it and the water that filters through it.One 2014 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found glyphosate in 75 percent of tested rainwater samples. Other chemicals that leach nutrients from our precious soil include fungicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers.
- Deforestation. Trees anchor soil with their roots. When trees are removed from an environment, as happens regularly in places like the Amazon and the world’s tropics, any remaining viable soil is washed away by heavy rains. As of 2012, Costa Rica was losing around 860 million tons of topsoil to deforestation each year, and Madagascar was losing 400 tons per hectare.
- Poor Agricultural and Grazing Practices. Poor management practices, such as overgrazing—the practice of keeping animals grazing in one place for long periods of time—makes it very difficult for surface grasses to recover. When they can’t recover, they are unable to sequester carbon in the soil, and the soil erodes because there are no roots to keep it in place. In addition to overgrazing, other agricultural practices, like monocroping and the deep plowing and tilling catalyzed by modern farming machines, break up soil particles and increase erosion rates.
These are just a few of the human-caused factors contributing to soil degradation. Others include mining and industrial activities, urbanization, and human-triggered water erosion.
While our soil situation is certainly dire, more than a cause for alarm, it should be a trigger for action. By shifting our food production from current industrial, chemical-heavy farming practices to holistic, regenerative organic methods, we can reverse course and begin to replenish our soil.
We have more info on regenerative grazing available elsewhere on our website , but essentially, it’s an agricultural and ranching process that focuses on grazing livestock the way they evolved to live: in densely packed groups that move from place to place relatively quickly, nurturing the soil and giving grasslands the opportunity to bounce back between grazing cycles.
While the phrase “only 60 harvests left” might make action sound futile, it’s not too late to take action and put the fate of our planet back in the hands of those who care about seeing it, and thus life on it, thrive for a very long time to come.