Recently, the Minnesota Commissioner of Health visited Fillmore County to speak of the overall health of Minnesotans and ask residents our thoughts on the matter of well-being. I had a chance to ask the commissioner a few questions and to speak to him of my concerns about soil quality and availability. He said our way of farming (worldwide) is not sustainable and there must be a change. How do we get change?
Change. It was voted for in 2008. It was voted for in 2016. Electing a new president is not enough to get the change we want or need. We, the people, may have to recognize we can try to vote in change as much as we want, but only we can effectually bring it about by working together. We can change how we consume, what we consume, how we produce, and what we produce. But why change? What’s the urgency?
In late 2015, the University of Sheffield came out with a study alleging one-third of global, arable soil has been either depleted in nutrients or eroded away entirely… in the last 40 years. Many farming practices currently used are not sustainable. It is hypothesized that with current increasing rates of erosion, Asian, African, and South American countries will be impacted soonest. Studies suggest, globally, only 60 years remain of good soil and already food deserts exist.
“Food desert” is a term used to illustrate the lack of food availability to residents in a region. We live in a land surrounded by tens of thousands of square miles of quality (for now) soil, yet we spend money on importing food from California. Food we could otherwise grow here. With California’s unstable (and drying) climate and growing demand for crops to be sold elsewhere (China’s recent trade agreement with the U.S. for rice), they may not always be a reliable source for nutrients. Is change feasible?
There are people working on this problem right now. A study in the UK by Dr. Jill Edmondson illustrates urban areas cover another significant percentage of soil that would otherwise be used for growing food. People may be surrounded by crops, but have not a bite to eat. Yet, food may be grown in urban areas. According to Dr. Edmondson, community gardens have been sprouting everywhere, worked by approximately 800 million people worldwide. What will our rural countryside look like 50 years from now if the best soil is found in urban areas?
Living in farm country, I’ve often heard that farmers grow food, but great farmers grow soil. This makes sense to me. Without healthy soil, there will be no nutritious food. We can provide supplemental nutrients with fertilizers, but at the expense of contaminating our increasingly valuable water supply. Such practices do not bring back the soil lost due to contamination and inevitable erosion (on average three tons per acre per year in the U.S. are eroded away). Instead, it may only serve to exacerbate the ecological disaster we find already occurring in our lakes and streams. Evolution thrives off ecological diversity. That diversity has been getting choked out as species cannot cope with a quickly shifting and degrading environment.
How about a solution? How can we change? Evolutionary success results from diversity. Perhaps it is time to diversify crops in the Midwest.
Recent studies illustrate crop diversity and rotation with additional labor often require fewer fertilizers and pesticides while maintaining high yields and profits. Trillions of microbes that lived in the soil formed our healthy and deep soil in Bluff Country to begin with. Soil is not dead, as our farmers know. It is the amalgamation of living detritovores and micro-organisms breaking down old vegetation and forming usable nutrients. If we take care of the soil, the soil will take care of us.
I encourage readers to consider alternative ways to increase soil quality and quantity while at the same time boosting the local economy. I recognize that I don’t have all answers, nor do I have all the facts. My sources can be found in the online version of this article.
Let’s make an investment in our soil. Let’s nurture it by improving its quality and quantity.
Farm Allotment in Britain 2: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/allotments-could-be-key-sustainable-farming-1.370522
China Importing U.S. Rice: http://money.cnn.com/2017/07/21/news/china-rice-us-trade/index.html
60 years remaining of soil: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/
Keeping your Soil: http://www.agriculture.com/crops/tillage/keep-your-topsoil_187-ar47223
Crop Rotation and Productivity:
Topsoil Loss Numbers in U.S.: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/technical/nra/nri/results/?cid=stelprdb1041887