This article looks into soil from the perspective of sustainability. Soil is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of sustainability. But, there is a chance that this vital but often overlooked and under loved matter could be influential in combating climate change.
What brought my attention to soil and its role in combatting climate change, was a section that I read in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins.
There are times when words simply jump out of the page and grab you. My reading of this section was one of those times.
“The world’s cultivated soils contain about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, whose carbon content is rising by half a percent per year. The earth’s 5 billion acres of degraded soils are particularly low in carbon and in need of carbon absorbing vegetative cover. Increasing degraded soil’s carbon content at plausible rates could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits. This would also improve soil, water and air quality.”
I found the entire quotation to be striking. But the penultimate sentence stood out to me for why soil could be a game changer when it comes to climate change.
I was also unaware that 2015 was the International Year of Soils. I was made aware of this by the very useful UNFAO video which I have posted below.
The key element to focus on is soil health as this is what predicts whether the soil will act like a sink or a source of carbon emissions.
Part of me is still completely amazed by the fact that there is more organic carbon in the soil than in ground vegetation and the atmosphere combined.
What is needed is soil with high levels of organic content as these are the soils that can sequester the most carbon.
What is not needed is excessive levels of deforestation which exposes bare soil to the air, compaction through heavy industrialised agriculture and of course developments which completely cover areas of soil with concrete and structures. These activities have a negative effect on soil’s ability to act as a sink of carbon and cause soils to become a source for greenhouse gasses.
I also thought it would be instructive to look back at Drawdown, which was a book edited by Paul Hawken that looked into the 100 most effective ways to reverse global warming. This was one of the most impressive books that I came across in 2017 and you can find a link to my review below.
With regards to soil the extract on pages 70-71 which was an extract from The Hidden Half of Nature by Montgomery and Bikle was very interesting. The following quotation stood out in particular.
“By the mid to late twentieth century, chemical-based agricultural practices were causing steady losses of soil carbon, topsoil, and humus, and creating water pollution, crops that were more susceptible to pests, greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide), and oceanic dead zones.”
They paint a bleak picture which emphasises the need for change.
The section on page 200-201 on microbial farming was also very relevant to soil and sustainability. I was amazed to find out that “in one gram of soil there can be up to 10 billion denizens, and between 50,000 and 83,000 different species of bacteria and fungi.”
On the more technical side I also found the following quotation interesting.
“A healthy soil biome is rich in carbon because soil microbes feed on sugar-rich exudates from the roots of plants; in turn, the bacteria dissolve the rock and minerals and make those nutrients available to plants.”
I am constantly amazed by the processes of the natural world and how it functions.
The section in Drawdown which was most relevant to soil and sustainability was the section on regenerative agriculture. Incredibly, this came in as their 11th most powerful solution for combatting climate change. This section contained the following powerful insight.
“The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed. Feeding the soil reduces carbon in the atmosphere. Soil erosion and water depletion cost $37 billion in the United States annually and $400 billion globally. Ninety-six percent of that comes from food production.”
What you need to know
This article looked into soil from the perspective of sustainability.
We looked into a quote from Natural Capitalism which showed that soils are a massive store of carbon. It also showed that if managed properly, the soils could become an even larger store of atmospheric carbon and a significant bulwark against climate change.
We also looked into a very instructive video by the UNFAO. This showed both how and why the soil can act as a source or a sink for carbon emissions.
Lastly, we looked at Drawdown for information on the role of soil in reversing climate change. This confirmed that soil has a vital role to play.
Overall, we have to hope that soil is not overlooked in favour of other higher tech and more glamorous solutions to climate change. We also have to hope that many of the impacts that accelerate soil’s transition from a sink to a source of carbon emissions are controlled.
What is clear, is that soil has a fundamental role to play in sustainability.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of soil’s role in sustainability?