The  living soil

The living soil

 

The science of sound

 

Did you know that fungi in the soil can be influenced by sound? Scientists recently discovered that playing ‘white noise’ to depleted soil increases healthy soil production by up to 20%. The ‘white sound’ mimics the movement of earthworms and other useful insects. 

How do fungi grow?

Until recently all we knew was that fungi primarily respond to environmental factors such as moisture, light, and nutrient availability. Factors such as humidity, temperature, pH level, and substrate composition are very influential on fungal growth. While fungi can detect environmental cues, they do so through chemical and physical signals rather than auditory stimuli. But sound is not something we associate with healthy soil, that is until now.

A few years ago a Swiss sound artist called  Marcus Maeder stuck a noise sensor into the ground. At the time he was working on his dissertation and was just curious ‘What does the soil sound like?’ And there was a lot of sound to discover. The soil is alive and full of screeching, scratching, and tons of other noises. Ecologists have long known that the earth is home to gazillions of organisms. In fact, in a small cup of earth, researchers have counted up to 100 million life forms.

Understanding that underground life is important because it creates ‘the living soil’.  “Soil helps to transform the nutrient elements like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that feed plants – for food, for forests, or to fill the air with oxygen, so we can all breathe,” says Steven Banwart, a soil, agriculture and water researcher at the University of Leeds in the UK, who co-wrote an overview of the functions of soil in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Worms, grubs, fungi, bacteria, and other decomposers are involved in every step. (source BBC article) 

Next time you start a compost heap, think about the millions of creatures that you will harbor.

The Living Soil 

“The living soil” refers to the complex ecosystem of organisms and processes that exist within the soil. Soil is not merely a medium for plants to grow in; it’s a dynamic environment teeming with life and essential for sustaining ecosystems. The living soil is home to bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, insects, and other microorganisms.

These organisms all play critical roles in nutrient cycling, decomposition, soil structure formation, and plant health. Without them, there is no compost, simple as that.

The recent discovery that introducing extra ‘white sound’ to the soil speeds up the formation of compost could be of huge importance in the coming years. Currently, most of our healthy soil is already depleted.  Making only a small layer of high-quality topsoil takes decades. Shortening this process would be a welcome development.

Maintaining a ‘living soil’ is crucial for sustainable agriculture and functioning ecosystems.  Reducing chemical inputs, promoting crop diversity, and adding organic matter is vital if we want to continue to grow healthy crops.

The Soil Revolution part 5 – The lack of Biodiversity

The Soil Revolution part 5 – The lack of Biodiversity

photo by Jimmy Chan

Since 1970 the number of species and animals declined by a staggering 69%. Some regions fare better than others, but it is clear that it is not an endless pool of resources. Loss of habitat and pollution are the main culprits right now. But if we don’t get climate change under control and limit to the barrier of 1.5 degrees C. warming, this problem will grow exponentially. 

These figures are taken from the World Economic Forum data. It is telling that this data is released by a group that is interested in economics and not by an organization that champions climate change. A loss of diversity will also have a big impact on business. The bad news is that we have come a long way in this decline. In India, for example, birds are literally falling out of the sky due to pollution!  This is just one appalling example of how bad air quality can get. Pollution in our seas is not much better. Corals, crustaceans, sharks, and sea turtles are all battling with massive declines. But we can (just about) still turn it around. One of the first U-turns should start with the soil and is called Regenerative Agriculture. 

Regenerative versus conventual agriculture

Since the 1st World War and the introduction of pesticides and fertilizers the soil structure has suffered a great deal. Before these ‘great inventions’ food was not harvested and in fact, all leftovers were put back onto the compost heap where it turned back into high-quality soil. This process went hand in hand with the seasons and one growing cycle prepared the soil for the next season. A teaspoon of healthy soil contains up to 6 billion microorganisms including fungi, insects, and microbes. All work together to turn last year’s waste into the new soil, so desperately needed for the growing cycle ahead.

Pesticides destroy these organisms, turning the soil into dust. Artificial fertilizers have to fill in and mimic the life-giving quality of the now-dead microbes.  Once the crop is growing, another cycle of pesticides gets rid of yet more microbes until hardly any are left and more fertilizer is needed for the next crop. And so the cycle of doom continues. These microorganisms are further food for worms and larger insects, which all suffer in turn as they struggle to find food.  Once the worms die, species further up the food chain follow their fate. If we are keen to protect the songbirds and bees, we need to start with the reparation of the soil as this is the beginning and end of the cycle. 

Conventional Agriculture is mostly interested in profit, taking from the earth without putting anything back. This can only work for a short period of time and we are now reaching the beginning of the end.  There is a great difference between arable land (where all plants are the same) and wildlife (where growing goes on as nature intended, preserving all kinds of species and letting them exist in harmony).

Although yields are initially higher in extensively farmed fields, the way we are going there soon (30-50 years from now) may not be enough soil left in the world to feed the whole population. Soil is precious and can’t be created overnight. In fact, a thin layer of topsoil takes decades to establish. Even if we started now to eradicate all use of pesticides and fertilizers we would still have a shortage of top-quality soil. It is a topic not much talked about, yet it touches our very existence. 

A regenerative agricultural system embraces a much more holistic approach. Rudolf Steiner warned over a hundred years ago that pesticides will destroy the soil and so he founded Biodynamic farming where cultivation of the soil has top priority. Special soil preparations are added to the land to enhance productivity. As they only contain natural ingredients (like chamomille, yarrow, nettle, dung, etc) the microorganisms in the soil are not destroyed, but actively fed. The quantities are also not vast. For example, 50-60 liters of water with 250-300g horn manure added will fertilize a hectare of farmland. 

Harvested biodynamic produce is very healthy and although the quantities may be slightly less, it is stronger (there is less waste and rot) and tastes a lot better. And of course, it is much healthier as there is no chemical pollution involved. Pesticides are not only harmful to wildlife but are passed on from the farm to the plate, especially if the produce is not thoroughly washed. Organic or biodynamic produce must also be washed, not to get rid of toxins, but rather to get rid of little flies and wildlife which enjoy these foods as much as we do. 

How does the future of farming look like? 

It depends on the consumers. Do we reject mass production and instead look out for organic and biodynamic farmed food or do we predominantly buy mass-produced food? One issue that always comes up is price. But that is sadly very shortsighted. With energy and fertilizer prices rising exponentially, there will soon be a tipping point where organic food may be even cheaper. In fact, we have almost reached this point. My organic fruit and veg box sourced directly from the farm costs already less than if I was to source the same quantity (often far more inferior in taste and size) at the local supermarket. With soil eradication moving on at this speed, organic plots of land will become highly sought after. So it is an interesting space to watch. Let’s hope we keep enough healthy soil alive in the process. 

Grow your own: Another sticking point is that organic farming is more labor-intensive. Weeding needs to be done by hand, as ‘weed’ and ‘crop’ grow next to each other. As plants often cross-fertilize, some organic farmers only weed, when the other plants (in this case weeds) threaten to take over the resources of their intended crop.  Agricultural and recreational spaces are not clearly separated but can be enjoyed together. This is the old-fashioned way of farming and you can grow like this in your garden. In fact, the new trend is vertical gardening. Hanging many pots on wireframes means a small garden can produce a fair amount of food, whilst you can still enjoy a field of wildflowers or a natural lawn. The soil should still be produced in a  compost heap and refreshed in the pots after each growing season.

 If you want to read the series ‘Welcome to the Soil Revolution’ from the beginning – please click below to join Part 1.

Part 1   Where are we now?  

 

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Stewardship of the land

Stewardship of the land

weeding   This article explores the history of agriculture and how it turned into our recent way of farming that is so reliant on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. How can we use the stewardship of the land in a better way?

The history of artificial fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture

We all can make a big impact, positively as well as negatively. When it comes to cultivating the land, nature always took care of itself, and the rhythmic cycles  –  preparing the soil, planting, harvesting, and composting in preparation for a new growing cycle –  took care of itself for thousands of years. The soil was rich and full of life. There were millions of tiny creatures involved in this delicate process. Fungi, earthworms, insects, and microbes all lived harmoniously in the soil. Microbes cultivated the crops and even colonized the guts of the humans and animals that ate these plants. It all worked in a harmonious, ever-repeating cycle.

Historians think that the earliest form of agriculture arrived with the domestication of wild animals such as horses, pigs, and cows and can be traced back to around 10,000 B.C.

During the Bronze Age (around 3,300 B.C.) more sophisticated ways of agriculture sprang up and modifications to harvest cycles and best planting practices – like Biodynamic planting dates – were established. All these were organic tools with the intent to enhance harvest production.

The arrival of the first fertilizers

The first introduction of artificial fertilizers was undertaken during the early part of the 19th century. John Bennet Lawes began the first scientific investigations about adding inorganic fertilizers (mainly phosphates) onto fields to increase crops with moderate success. But other than these early steps the organic way of farming and gardening remained largely unchanged until World War 1 (1914-1918).

The Haber-Bosch process

The first patents for synthetic ammonium nitrates and other chemical fertilizers emerged from Germany. In 1910 Carl Bosch, working at the time for the chemical giant BASF, started to secure a number of patents for the use of synthic chemicals to increase crop production. He teamed up with Fritz Haber and both won a Nobel prize in 1918 for their Haber-Bosch process. This method is still the main formula to produce artificial fertilizers. Basically, this process converts nitrogen(N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2).

In the years after World War 2, more patents were sought and the use of synthetic fertilizers increased rapidly. Countries like China, Russia, and even Vietnam used these products in great amounts and Russia remains to this day one of the leading producers of artificial fertilizers.

Pesticides

The real problem started when pesticides were used in tandem with artificial fertilizers.  Again during World War 1, chemical warfare started to be introduced for the first time as a new weapon to kill soldiers in the trenches. Factories had to be remodeled to manufacture and supply these substances, mainly consisting of mustard gas and tear gas. But the war was short and once it was over, all these factories stood idle.

Pesticides such as arsenic, mercury, and sulfur dusting have already been used by the Sumerians in 2000 B.C. but in very small quantities and overall the soil health remained intact. However, after World War 1 and especially after World War 2, its use increased enormously.  It is estimated that the worldwide use of pesticides today measures around 2.5 megatonnes per year and this has, of course, a huge impact on the health of our soil and as a consequence our health.

The main detriment is killing the useful bacteria, microbes, and all the millions of other insects and species that help with the composting and the soil preparation. By killing them all, the soil turns to dirt – void of all life, and artificial fertilizers have to be used in ever-increasing quantities to assure a successful crop. The more we destroy, the more we have to artificially feed the plants. It is a cycle of destruction and sadly many farmers are now stuck with this process. To build up a new soil structure takes time, a lot of time. And many farmers would not commercially survive this conversion. This brings me to the next point of stewardship of the land.

 

The Stewardship of the land

 The fundamental way of human existence is to be connected to the natural cycle and the feeling of being at one with nature. We are not above it, far from it! 

We are an integral part of the all-natural processes and share this planet with plants and animals in equal measures.  We need to respect them and in turn, will be enriched by their contribution to the natural cycle. It should be a cycle of mutual benefit, not destruction. 

 

The introduction of artificial fertilizers was not all evil. Initially, it was seen as a means to serve a growing population with increased food security and lower food production costs.  But now we know that this has not happened and starvation still exists. Instead, farmers are held to ransom with increasing fertilizer price rises and worthless soils.

We better had listened to Rudolf Steiner’s warning exactly 100 years ago when he predicted all this and gave lectures to regain soil health and the linked food production and gut health. At the time this approach was ridiculed by many established scientists and the connection was only proven a few years ago.

As I mentioned above, we all can have an impact, positively and negatively. You may not be able to grow your own food, but at least you can source food from responsible food growers who work with the land and its natural rhythms.  It may cost a tiny bit extra as this way of farming is slightly more labour intensive and it takes more time to keep the soil in a good state. But by doing this, these farmers make sure that the land keeps its fertile soil and is in a good state of health when it is eventually passed to the next generation and the next after them. We all share responsibility in this and we all share in the stewardship of our precious Earth.

Here is an article that explains more about gut health and weight control

 

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 An Introduction to LWTM

The soil revolution – part 4

The soil revolution – part 4

Biodynamic cookingHere is another installment of our series – the soil revolution. If you want to read it from the beginning – please click below to join Part 1.

Part 1 looked into:   Where are we now?  (please read it here) 

Part 2  will introduce you to Instituto Terra, an organization that specializes in reforestation, particularly in the Brazilian rainforest. 

In Part 3 we travel to New Zealand to follow dreamers and fools 

Part 4 – Wholesome Wave

So far I have featured people who were conscious of the actual soil. But this episode is different as it looks at a scheme that combines nutritional education with a practical way to deliver healthy food grown in great soils to people who usually are not able to afford it. It is called Wholesome Wave and here is a video that features Benjamin Perkins who explains a bit more about this innovative program.
In a nutshell, Wholesome Wave makes healthy food available to people who may not usually be able to afford it or don’t know what to do with it. Besides, it is already clear that healthy food is the best way of preventing long-term illness. So an overall win-win.

 

 An Introduction to LWTM

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The soil revolution – part 2

The soil revolution – part 2

soil revolution - part 2

Instituto Terra in Brazil

 Part 1 looked into:   Where are we now?  (please read it here)

From now onwards we look into solutions and people who have actively played part in this.
Part 2  will introduce you to Instituto Terra, an organization that specializes in reforestation, particularly in the Brazilian rainforest. 

Instituto Terra 

In 1994 the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado returned home to his native Brazil with his wife Lelia. Both had grown up in the region but lived in France for most of their adult life. There Salgado became a known photojournalist, reporting on indigenous tribes and refugees, from Ethiopia, Rwanda, and even Bosnia. He won many prizes for this journalistic work. 

But then his father got ill and he returned home to his family farm. Upon his return, the couple was shocked at how the land had eroded. The lush forests and streams had gone and the farm where Salgado had grown up was now a wasteland. (see map below). Less than 1% of the original vegetation and wildlife had remained. It was time to act. 

Lelia had the idea to replant the forest which they did. In fact, they planted over 2 million trees! And the results are stunning. Over 20 years later, the land is unrecognizable. Gone are the barren hills and instead the area is full of trees and wildlife. Even water has returned nourishing the newly planted forest. 

Having had success on their own land by turning this once barren land once more into a lush 1,754 acres rain forest,  the couple set up the Institutio Terra. This organization is showing other farmers and landowners how to return their eroded land to a wildlife sanctuary. Once the forest returns, the improved soil structure prevents flash floods and making it possible for wildlife to return. Now this once barren soil, is home to more than 293 species of trees and many animals have returned, too. Instituto Terra has become a center for research for reforestation, but more importantly, it has become a wonderful place to visit and live.

 

 Watch here the YouTube video that shows the reinstatement of the forest 

 

If you want to find out more about Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado please watch the excellent documentary Salt of the Earth by Wim Wenders that tells his life story and how he became this exceptional social photographer.

 An Introduction to LWTM

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