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Soil Trilogy - Soil Degradation

Soil Trilogy - Soil Degradation

The Soil Trilogy - Part One: Soil Degradation

    Dirt and soil often get used interchangeably, but the two couldn’t be more different. You may have used dirt in the context of “dirt” cheap, and that’s it in a nutshell: dirt has almost no value. If left as dried-up sand, clay and rocks, dirt can’t sustain life and is void of any nutrients. Whereas soil, well soil is totally and completely alive. Not only is soil itself vibrating with microorganisms, minerals, nutrients, and other life forms needed to sustain plant life, but those very nutrients are what’s keeping humans alive.

Soil “degradation” is the loss or death of the biodiversity that sustains us as a species, resulting in dirt and dessert land worldwide. With the speeding up of soil degradation since the industrial revolution, it seems we’ve finally reached the tipping point.

  In order to understand “why” soil degradation affects the survival of our entire planet and species, we need to dive into the “how.”

How soil degradation occurs:

1. Deforestation

Most of us know that the cutting down of forests and trees has been a massive contributor to the loss of our planet’s biodiversity. Not only has this eliminated habitat for our animal friends but it has left the land exposed. When our soil is exposed to the elements, without greenery to absorb and process the blow, it becomes eroded. Eroded soil isn’t able to hold in moisture or water, causing extreme drought or flooding. Imagine your house plant when you haven’t watered it in weeks. The soil becomes so compact that when you do water it, the water just sits on top. Imagine this, but on a larger scale.

2. Overgrazing

Just like with deforestation, overgrazing (the process of keeping livestock like cows in one spot to eat grass) strips our soil bare, making is susceptible to erosion. Cattle can eat a lotof grassland, so keeping them in one spot isn’t sustainable for their diets. They will continue to graze upon them heavily, eventually getting at the roots, which carry the reserve food for the soil. It affects the plants’ ability to regenerate quickly enough, and since roots are good binders of soil, we eventually have loose, eroded soil once again.

3. Conventional Tilling

While soil is technically a renewable resource, it can take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to develop, depending on the climate, and the process is so slow that it’s still vulnerable to degradation. This wearing down happens with traditional farming practices like tillage, which helps to break up the dense and compact soil. Tilling is an ancient practice meant to help sow the seeds into the ground, giving them their best chance at germinating and growing, while also disrupting the weed lifestyle. On an infrequent or less invasive scale, maybe tilling would work, but consistent plowing doesn’t just disrupt weeds, it disrupts the beneficial microbe party happening in the soil, affecting the health of the entire operation.

4. Pesticides and Spraying

The eroded dirt that farmers are left with has poor water absorption and aeration, which leaves the crops susceptible to weather damage. The answer to this crop damage has been to use synthetic fertilizers to boost the plants’ health and to control weeds, but this only works short-term. Soil fumigants, a type of pesticide, are designed to kill organisms, and they don’t just kill bad bacteria but also fungi and other organisms, all of which are vital to soil health and fertility.

5. Climate Change

Trees, grasslands, and healthy crops are the key to providing us life. They love munching on the carbon in the atmosphere and go to the lengths of converting this carbon (something we can’t ingest) into something we can: oxygen! Plants go the extra mile to pull the carbon deep down into the earth, and healthy soil is a fantastic storage unit of this carbon. Nearly 80% of the carbon in our ecosystem is stored right in the soil!

When we begin mass-extinguishing these cover crops, we’re ridding our planet of the ability to process and store this carbon efficiently. Not only that, but when looking back at tillage practices, the big tractors are lifting up the soil and speeding up the release of carbon into our atmosphere.

So not only are we speeding up the process of emitting this greenhouse gas (responsible for warming our planet faster), but we’re removing our cushion for absorbing it back up. Saving the soil from further degradation isn’t enough. We need to work with nature to rebuild and regenerate our soil because the loss of healthy soil is a loss of our lifeline. 

What can you do to help regenerate soil?

Rebuilding soil may seem like a large task, but together we can make a difference! Small, every day choices combined with advocating for systemic and corporate change will go a long way.

1. Start rebuilding soil in your own backyard and/or in your community.
2. Switch to bamboo, hemp or cork products to minimize deforestation (all three regenerate faster than wood).
3. Switching over to Ecosia's search engine is also an easy but inspiring swap as every time you use them, they plant trees, preserve habitats, and will teach you a bit more about environmental issues worldwide. 
4. Buy less overall. When you do purchase, choose from companies, brands and farmers that care about the environment and ultimately our soil.

Did you know? Nature Supply Co regenerates one square foot of degraded soil with every item purchased. We have also zeroed out are entire carbon footprint and are Climate Neutral Certified. How cool is that?!


Next up on the “soil trilogy” blog, we’ll be diving into how our soil’s health has impacted human health within our current food systems. So, if you’ve been wondering how human health and soil health are connected, click here!

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