It is no secret that industrialized agriculture causes a sharp decline in soil fertility. With ever larger and more efficient tractors to plant and harvest, fields have grown to massive sizes in the past century, farms have consolidated into large corporate operations, and the allure of focusing on one or two cash crops has grown on par. The lack of diversity in monocrop plantations means that important plant nutrients used by crops to grow are not replenished in the soil, and the technological solution to this problem is to simply spray the required nitrogen or other “fertilizer” onto the fields, creating an industry that borrows heavily from technologies of war developed from the 1940’s onward.
The problem is that in spite of continuous and ever growing amounts of “fertilizer”, the productivity of the soil continues to decline. Purchased nutrients and chemicals added to the soil eventually concentrate into serious contaminants, affecting human as well as ecosystem health – not to mention negative impacts on productivity as fields must be “rested” for ever longer periods to become viable for cultivation again, and eventually becoming desolate dust bowls.
In the short term, industrialized agriculture seems like a good way to producing large amounts of cash crops to sell in a commodity market, but over time it is proving to be a path to desertification, as well as the engineered downfall of small hold and cooperative farmers.
It seems agricultural engineers forgot that production must not destroy productivity, and maybe did not have it all figured out after all. One of the most damning examples of their shortsightedness is a complete disregard and ignorance of the soil microbiome. This factor alone is enough to demonstrate that industrial agriculture in not a viable solution for feeding humans on earth in the long term.
The bacteria and fungi that thrive in biodiverse and well-covered dirt are in fact the foundation of the food chain. The rich mulch one finds in ancient forest floors or the earthy loam of robust prairie ecosystems are homes to millions of microscopic organisms which perform essential biological functions that help create healthy, productive soil.
Bacteria do things such such as fix nitrogen to soil and oxidize sulfur, making these important nutrients available to growing plants. They can also prevent disease and pests, and play an important role in early decomposition of organic matter.
Fungi develop mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships with plants at the root, allowing the plant to better absorb nutrients and water. They also protect plants from pathogens and pests, and can also produce fruiting bodies of their own which are edible or medicinal to humans.
Of course there are some bacteria and fungi which can be detrimental to plants, and these often dominate in disturbed environments such as intensive monocrop fields, a process which in turn leads to the application of toxic fungicides and quickens the desertification process.
Modern industrial agriculture has missed the boat on understanding the importance of soil ecology and will have a lot of catching up to do to maintain fertility and crop yields in the future. Another area where an understanding of the secret life of roots and bugs can yield promising results is ecosystem restoration.
From farms to forests to urban parks, a new generation of environmentalists with a mandate to mitigate impacts of climate change by capturing carbon in soil and forests, through a process of restoring thriving ecosystems, are leading the charge – and recruiting help from the smallest of organisms: the single cell bacteria and fungi that create the conditions for their initiatives to thrive.
The work of Shubendu Sharma and the Afforestt company, is a good example example. They offer to grow a 100 year forest in only 10 years in degraded landscapes. Sharma’s company offers consulting and direct restoration services and have had considerable success is growing small, biodiverse forests in a variety of environments using local species. Their secret? Among other techniques, the liberal application of thick mulch and organic cover is essential, allowing for soil ecology to develop and sustain the growing successions necessary to develop healthy forests.
Soil4Climate is another initiative where farmers, environmentalists and academics converge to promote an understanding of the critical importance of soil ecology to the future of our planet, and are leveraging this shared knowledge to transform their corners of the world.
Soil4Climate is made up of people like Timothy Kercheville, a farmer in Kentuky who has transformed his acreage into restored prairie. His experience has lead to an understanding of the import role of grassland ruminants to his local environment. He is advocating for responsible meat production as part of restorative agriculture in the parries. Kercheville proposes that annual crops should be limited to a small fraction of the millions of acres currently being tilled, in favor native grasses, woodlands and biological diversity.
Similar examples can be found around the world, as individuals and communities grow in their awareness of the invisible living webs that make plant growth, and by extension all life on earth, possible.
More good news is coming, as the scientific community continues to look into the importance of soil biomes in everything from forestry to agriculture to carbon capture. Large intergovernmental organizations such as the IPCC and the IUCN are also taking note, and developing their own policy positions.
As awareness of the secret life of roots and bugs continues to grow, we can only hope we will see the ongoing rise of more conscientious and careful agriculture, livestock farming, forest management and restoration efforts. It is also important to keep pushing these issues into the public spotlight, holding leaders and political actors accountable for policies that have an impact on the smallest (but enormously important), living things.