By Dr. Mercola
“If there were a United Federation of Organisms,
humans would be voted off the planet.” –Paul Stamets
One of Earth’s greatest treasures is soil—without it, we could not survive. Soil is the mother of nearly all plant life, and ultimately all animal life on Earth. It’s the interface between biology and geology, the living skin of our planet.
A new documentary, “Dirt! The Movie,”1 brings to life the environmental, economic, social, and political impacts of soil. Sharing the planet with humanity has all but placed soil on the “endangered species list,” due to greed, ignorance, and lack of respect for the earth.
Our very lives depend on the top five centimeters of soil, which keeps our biosphere healthy and teeming with life. Soil is quite literally a matter of life or death—our life or death. India calls its soil “Sacred Mother” because it’s the source of all fertility.
We’ve lost one-third of our topsoil over the last century as a result of industrialized agriculture, monocropping, erosion, and deforestation. Each year, 100 million trees are turned into 20 billion mail order catalogs.
Instead of being narrowly focused on growing food, we should be putting our efforts into building and restoring healthy soil. Not only is healthy soil necessary for nutritious food, but it has other important functions across the globe.
Dirt Can Also Provide Materials for Homes
People have been building with dirt for more than 9,000 years. One-third of the world’s population still lives in earthen structures.
Earthen dwellings are made from local materials, often from the very ground you’re standing on. Earthen homes are undergoing a revival due to the rising costs of fuel and building materials. Materials such as cob and adobe are the most commonly used building materials worldwide.
Earthen structures are cool in summer and warm in winter, ideally suited for passive solar heating and cooling. They are clean, attractive, and strong, often capable of withstanding the elements for hundreds of years.2
Cob is a simple building material made from clay-rich soil and typically straw that can be stomped into place to create earthen walls. Cob structures are extremely durable, many surviving centuries in harsh British coastal climates.3,4
Cob is abundant, inexpensive, nontoxic, and doesn’t contribute to deforestation, pollution, or mining. Building with it doesn’t demand the use of manufactured materials or power tools.
In India, mud plaster is made from a mixture of mud and cow dung and is often “painted” in layers upon earthen floors to build a hard, resilient surface. The dung even acts as an antiseptic to help prevent infestations.
Thanks to the cows, the fiber in the dung is processed extremely fine, and its “pre-treatment” with enzymes and other proteins creates a natural glue that dries very hard.
Similar to cob, adobe is made from sand, clay, water, and fibrous organic matter such as sticks, straw, or dung. Adobe is commonly used in hot climates, such as the American Southwest, Mexico, South America and Africa.
One Tablespoon of Healthy Soil Contains 50 Billion Bustling Microbes
“One handful of terrestrial dirt contains more organized information than the surface of all the other planets combined.” – Dirt! The Movie
Soil cannot be taken for granted—it isn’t everywhere. Most of the planet’s surface actually consists of solid rock, upon which most plants can’t grow. Soil starts with a mineral source—weathered rock, glacial silt, river sediments, or sand—but it isn’t soil until organic matter is added.
This slow infusion of organic matter is why soils can take hundreds, or even thousands of years to develop. Unfortunately, toxic agricultural practices can destroy it in a few years!
Healthy soil is about 50 percent solids and 50 percent air and water. Organic sources can be living or non-living. Old leaves, dead animals, and tiny living things all enrich the soil with its necessary carbon supply. Microbes must have a constant supply of organic matter or their numbers will decline.
At present, the world’s soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their carbon, much of which is now in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Soil houses thousands of organisms—bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes, and arthropods—all playing unique roles in the continual recycling of organic matter, most being smaller than the head of a pin.
Soil microorganisms are key in making nutrients available to plants and are so diverse that 70 to 80 percent have yet to be identified. It’s estimated that one tablespoon of soil contains about 50 billion microbes.5
Fungi play a particularly important role. More than 90 percent of land plants are nourished by mycorrhizae, a symbiotic form of fungi that helps move nutrients from the soil into the roots of plants.
Soil microorganisms are critical to numerous processes, including releasing essential nutrients and carbon dioxide, nitrogen fixation, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, denitrification, immobilization, and mineralization.
You and Your Dirt Share Lots of DNA
On a DNA level, you are not that different from the microorganisms in the dirt. Given this, it’s no surprise that you carry 100 trillion microorganisms in and on your body, which play a major role in your health.
We are so much like the soil and its microbiome that what kills the soil will likely kill us too. This is why it’s so critical that we stop destroying our soils, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
A food system based on monoculture, genetically engineered foods, and toxic agrichemicals is decimating this fragile ecosystem.
Only a few hundred of the 80,000 chemicals in use in the US have been tested for safety, and the majority end up in our soil and waterways, killing off beneficial organisms while allowing pathogens to flourish.
Pesticides and other agrichemicals also destroy the soil’s structure, its ability to hold water, and its organisms—therefore, its fertility is lost. These chemicals are also destroying bees and butterflies, along with other flora and fauna. Sixty percent of the world’s ecological systems are nearing collapse, yet industry continues to turn a blind eye to its demise.
Are We Inviting Another Dust Bowl?
Industrial farming practices resulting in destruction of topsoil and the resultant erosion may be inching us closer to another Dust Bowl. The American Midwest was once known as the “breadbasket” of the world. But after the industrial revolution, farmers used modern machinery to strip away native grasses from the prairies in order to plant wheat across millions of acres.
Initially, monocropping seemed like an efficient system of farming, but over the long term it proved devastating to the soil. Complicated by persisting drought, winds picked up the soil creating thick clouds of dust called “black blizzards,” blanketing the region in an unprecedented years-long “storm.”
The 1930s Dust Bowl is said to have been the worst ecological disaster in our history—and it was largely manmade. Today, more than 60 percent of the country is again facing moderate to extreme drought conditions.8 As we struggle with water shortages and continue foolish, unsustainable farming practices, we could again be brewing a dust storm of epic proportions, or inviting some other “ecological Armageddon” of which we can’t even fathom.
Degraded Soils Lead to Poverty, Suicides, and Hunger Riots
Farmers across the globe are in crisis as a direct result of the current food system. Monoculture is a setup for ecological disaster, especially when growing conditions are unfavorable, such as in times of drought. Industrial farming has created a massive need for nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, and as soils are further compromised, the demand for these expensive chemicals increases.
As farmers go broke, their land is taken over by multinational agribusinesses that grow GMO monocrops. According to the film, the target is 600 million farmers in India alone.
As a result, more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past two decades after being left in financial ruin, largely by Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds (particularly Bt cotton). An Indian farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes, typically by drinking the pesticides he can no longer afford.
Families living on degraded lands become extremely poor and typically move to the city to search for jobs, which aren’t available. These families end up living in the slums. For the first time in human history, more people now live in cities than the countryside. And in the developing world, almost 80 percent of city dwellers live in slums.
In Haiti, the hungry rely on “cookies” made of dried yellow dirt, which has no nutritional value at all, but helps decrease the pain of hunger. What come next are hunger riots, which are occurring around the world as food and clean water are in increasingly short supply.9
A Few Tips for Greening Up Your World
Soil regeneration is key to the health of future generations, as Kristin Ohlson explains in the interview above. Your health is directly related to the quality of the food you eat, and the quality of your food depends on the health of the soil in which it’s grown. Regenerating soils and creating new fertile topsoil comes down to mimicking nature. Increasing the carbon content of your soil is a key component of soil fertility, as it feeds microbes and helps retain moisture, so everything grows better.
Fortunately, amidst the squandered resources, there’s a food revolution taking place in America. Forty-two million American households are growing their own food at home, or in community gardens—that represents 35 percent of all of the households in the US, a 17 percent increase in five years!
Millennials (ages 18 to 34) are the fastest growing population segment of food growers, and an increasing number are households with children.10 There are many ways you can contribute to sustainability, and of course home gardening is an excellent one, but there are others as well. Here are a few suggestions:
- Support CSAs, farmers markets, and local farmers who use organic, sustainable farming practices. Local Harvest, Eat Well Guide, and Food Routes are organizations that can help you find sustainably grown food in your area.
- Avoid tilling your soil. Tilling is probably one of the most destructive aspects of modern-day industrial agriculture, as it disrupts and destroys important soil biology. One farmer was able to triple the amount of organic matter in his soil in 20 years by avoiding tilling.
- Build your soil using wood chips, which will decrease your dependence on commercial fertilizers and compost products. Wood chips are an effective, cost-effective way to greatly improve the health of your soil and garden. You just lay down uncomposted wood chips on top of your garden—using whatever is available locally, typically a combination of leaves, twigs, and branches.
The chips break down gradually and are digested and redigested by a wide variety of soil organisms, which is exactly what happens in nature. For more information, listen to my interview with Paul Gautschi.
- Turn your waste into compost. Composting is not as complicated as you might think. You can compost in any open space in your yard, in a shallow pit, in a large bin, or in a small worm bin that takes less than two square feet of space.
- Save your seeds. More than 93 percent of the variety in our food seeds has been lost, as large multi-national corporations have swallowed up smaller seed suppliers. Saving your own seeds, as well as obtaining seeds from seed swaps and exchanges, can help preserve what precious diversity remains.
- Plant trees! Trees remove air pollution, so the more we have, the better our air quality will be. Some 46 to 58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year, which equates to 36 football fields every minute.11
- Consider building a green roof or a green wall. You can even grow your food on your roof! Green roofs consist of soil and living plants, and they retain most of the water that falls on them, there’s almost no runoff. They also protect your roof from sun damage—roofs last up to five times longer—and they clean the air as well. Read more about building green roots at Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.
Dirt! The Movie was proudly brought to you by FMTV, the Netflix® for Nutrition and Health.
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