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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