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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The Soil Revolution – part 1

The Soil Revolution – part 1

The soil revolution   The status quo –
where are we now? 

As far back as 2014, Reuters reported that a senior UN official said, “If we continue with our intense farming practices and destruction of wildlife at the current levels – we have realistically 60 years of sustainable farming left. “ (source Scientific American)

This is a sobering thought. But what has happened on the official front since 2014?

Where are the school campaigns that explain to children that to make 3cm of topsoil takes the earth roughly 1000 years, but we only have 60 left. Where are the billboards and media campaigns to the same effect? I am interested in this topic and apart from the occasional scientific paper, it does not seem to be ‘newsworthy.

But this ecological wave is coming nearer and nearer and nearer. And the evidence is all too clear. Since 2014 we had more floods, bushfires, and heatwaves and the destruction simply moves on. First the coral reefs, then the icebergs in Antarctica, the increase of desert and soil destruction, and the massive, massive loss of wildlife. The last one is properly the most talked about topic. And it is lovely to look after the bees, but only bees and no other wildlife would never ever work.

I know it is not the best place we currently find ourselves in, but this blog series is not meant to be just doom and gloom. The essence here is – what can we do about it?  And then act fast!

Luckily there are a few men and women around who really grasped this concept early on and started doing something about it. Some of these methods are really ingenious and we will hear more about their various projects over the next few articles.

But let’s start first at the beginning

When Rudolf Steiner first taught his first Biodynamic soil lectures – now almost 100 years ago – this topic did not seem relevant and he was called a deluded dreamer for most of the 20th century. But not anymore.  Ever since scientists discovered microbes in the soil and even inside us,  the concept of ‘the living soil’ has moved from random fiction to fact.

The first Biodynamic lectures were held just after the First World War and this is by no means a coincidence. Although this war was short (1914-1918), the world saw chemical warfare used for the first time in combat. The real war benefit was only established towards the end of this war, but with peace on the horizon all these chemical plants had no longer any use.  So a plan was hatched that these chemicals could in diluted form be brought out on the fields to get rid of ‘soil and leaf’ pests. This meant the farmer did not have to adhere to long-standing traditional methods of crop rotation, weeding and composting. The ‘miracle cure was of course much easier to administer.

And initially the farmers were enthusiastic. Who would not like more yield and less work? But after a few years, the quality of the soil and produce deteriorated and some farmers asked Steiner for advice.

Additionally, the first year a little bit of fertiliser did the trick, but with every subsequent year more and more fertilizer had to be used to achieve the same result. This is costly but after a while, there is not much of an alternative. left.  The farmers can’t just stop the farm for a couple of years in order to wait for the soil to revigorate. This is not a sustainable business model and the trap continues.

What had happened?

Let’s look first at how the soil works. Compost material (waste from the previous growing season) together with compost tonics and manure are put onto the fields and reinvigorate the soil. This usually happens in late autum (the end of the growing cycle)  and in early spring (the beginning of the cycle). This enables the billions of microbes in the soil to turn the compost into a fertile, nutrient-rich soil, ready for the next growing cycle. This humus is full of fungi, earthworms and insects. It is the ‘internet of the soil’, distributing moisture and letting plants almost ‘communicate’ with each other and certainly cross-fertilize each other (that is the principle of companion planting).

But artificial fertilizers destroy all these natural soil improvers, turning fertile, alive soil (there are billions of these creatures in just a handful of earth) into dirt= dead soil.

Lifeless dirt is then artificially fed to produce the next year’s crop, but there is no regeneration. Once this chemical is washed away by the rain, it is gone and more product has to be put on to replace it. But more importantly, the food you eat is ‘also dead’ as no or very few microbes survive. Dead food lacks nutrients and most importantly microbes. We need the soil and its creature for our survival, too.  IPS, bloating and more severe health crises can often be traced back to food that gives us fuel (and puts on calories) but does not actually ‘feed us’. And that is not even taking obesity and diabetes into account.

I have often talked about the macro-organism and the micro-organism and how they work together. If you are new to this concept it is as follows:

The Macro-organism is the universe, the planets, stars and micro-organisms are all living creatures. Beetles, birds, whales, lions, trees, flowers, and of course us humans. It is like a huge clockwork, every clog and wheel turns individually, but when in harmony they feed and enrich each other.

Going back to the clock example. Taking a small wheel out of the clock may be ok, but destroying half of the clockwork – what do you think would happen? Most children could answer this.

But this is exactly what we are doing with the planet. Currently, we are losing about 30 soccer fields EVERY MINUTE!

We read above that the earth is capable of making 3cm of good quality topsoil in about 1000 years – please make the Maths.

Additionally, the soil is responsible for catching carbon and hanging on to water. Dirt can’t do that and the results are floods and climate change.

So, we are where we are, and no more gloom! From now on this series will turn to seek real, positive solutions.  We need to make this positive turning point for the sake of our children and grandchildren. The Soil Revolution has started and we are all hell-bent to reverse this damage done over the last 100 years. Come and join in and do your bit!

Access here the second installment of the Soil Revolution series 

 

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