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Peak soil

Written By: - Date published: 12:32 pm, April 5th, 2015 - 50 comments
Categories: Conservation, sustainability - Tags: , ,

No, not a typo. Just in case you’re short of things to worry about, you can add soil to the list. George Monbiot last month in The Guardian:

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

… Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.  …

A few years back I reviewed Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope, which is also very good at documenting the dangers of the rapid environmental degradation that we are engaging in.

The government’s deregulation bill, which has now almost completed its passage through parliament, will force regulators – including those charged with protecting the fabric of the land – to “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. But short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival. This “unambiguously pro-business agenda” is deregulating us to death.  …

Of course our government is doing exactly the same, with its attack on the RMA.

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere. In its early stages, globalisation enhances resilience: people are no longer dependent on the vagaries of local production. But as it proceeds, spreading the same destructive processes to all corners of the Earth, it undermines resilience, as it threatens to bring down systems everywhere.

Most people understand the need to manage the environment sustainably. Even the political right should be able to grasp that there is no economy without the environment. And yet we carry on down our destructive road.

Obviously we need to vote for parties and local governments that take environmental issues seriously, not those that ignore or deny the problems. But we don’t have to just sit and wait for governments, we can all act locally. In this respect the Transition Town movement is a fantastic initiative. Get in touch with your own local transition organisation and get involved. There are plenty of great people and resources out there to learn from.

50 comments on “Peak soil ”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    This is NZ from sapce. The light areas are farms and the dark areas are forest.

    Since the arrival of humans forests have dropped from near 100% to 31.4% in 2010. That coverage decrease had dropped to 56% by 1840 which means that even before the arrival of Europeans land use in NZ was unsustainable. Coverage has been slowly increasing since 1998 but not by enough.

    We need to change land use rules significantly from the presentfarm as a much as possible to make farmers richer to farm only what we need to feed the population in NZ. Cities need to upwards rather than outwards further decreasing land use. Everything else needs to be returned to forest with most of it being native forest.

    It is forests that build and sustain soil that can then be used to grow food. Artificial fertilisers do the exact opposite.

    • NZJester 1.1

      Actually maybe cities need to go down not up as in underground to leave the surface mostly clear for food and forest production. Or at least put in a growing level or two in each building.
      I saw a while back some plans an architect had drawn up of a building with a greenhouse built into it to grow food. Domes and mirrors on the roof reflected sunlight into the end of fiber-optic tubes that let them transfer the natural sunlight into the building where panels redistribute the light into the room without the need for electric lighting.
      Highrise greenhouses could be the thing of the future if we can still have the good soil to use.

      • weka 1.1.1

        We have enough land, that’s not the issue. We might end up with too many people, so at some point we will need either a steady state economy or degrowth. But the soil issue is how we farm the land we have not how much land we farm. Currently farming practices deplete soil, and the recent decades of extractive farming have accelerated that to a rate that is completely unsustainable. Fortunately we also know how to build soil (will drop some links down thread).

        • saveNZ 1.1.1.1

          Thanks Weka. Keen for links.

          Really liked those other links you did a while ago about drought. The one in Jordon was an amazing transformation.

          Do you know any thing about putting carbon in the soil?

          Apparently putting carbon in can totally change it for the better. Might be good for NZ soil.

          • weka 1.1.1.1.1

            Links here http://thestandard.org.nz/peak-soil/#comment-995892

            The carbon one is interesting. Lots of amazing work being done using animal grazing to restore soil and at the same time sequester carbon (you have to stop ploughing of course). If perennial pasture is left to grow long, then is mob grazed low, the plants shed their roots and this feeds the microbes. Those microbes are then crucial to all the biological processes that go on that ensure fertility, and good soil structure. This builds carbon in the soil, and as a long as it isn’t ploughed it remains there indefinitely. There are a number of different systems now in use that mimic this natural cycle from grassland and herd ecosystems (which are very fertile).

            Much of that work has been done in Africa, the US and Australia. People are doing it here too. I’m not sure what the limitations are here. In the big continents, herd animals were part of the natural ecosytems for very long times. Not so here and I hope we get to do more research on what are the best practices for the soils we have. On the other hand, we’ve spent 150 years degrading the landscape here and there is no reason to not use the livestock farms we have to restore some of those landscapes until we get to the next thing (we also need to massively be planting trees, because forests are crucial to how the ecologies of NZ works).

            Check out Holistic Management (Allan Savory), Carbon Farming, Regenag, and Joel Salatin. People that are good with empirical evidence without scientific rationale can check out the biodynamic farmers too. All those techniques are looking at land restoration not just sustainable farming.

      • Coffee Connoissuer 1.1.2

        take a look at vertical farming.

    • Poission 1.2

      The contrast from SPACE with a ring fenced national park is evident with Taranaki.

      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/NEO_egmont_big.jpg

  2. saveNZ 2

    Absolutely right!!!

    Thanks for this article. Soil is very underestimated in how important it is both for food production, flora survival and erosion control.

    With the climatic change events that are occurring, droughts, floods, earthquakes, tidal waves etc throughout the world, soil issues are not really being talked about. We are losing the bees, kauris disease, etc etc and not enough is being done about it.

    People have lost sight of the big picture of life, now everything is so short term with profits – in the days before fertilisers you rotated crops and then on the seventh year let them be fallow. This has worked for centuries but now crops are mono crops, soil is not rested, soils are artificially maintained and the run off is leaching.

    I am not against fertiliser or pesticides but everything should be in moderation. There are big industry interests that want farmers to keep buying their products in ever increasing quantities. However the long term cost are not known and impacts on bees, water quality, soil etc

    The RMA is not strong enough already to protect the environment from short term profiteering, let alone if National gets its way to remove more environmental protection.

    Farmers should be the most scared, far from benefiting them, it is more likely industry and development will start to encroach them and wreck the Kiwi farming way of life. Fancy a motorway or power pylon through your farm, or a 200 residential subdivision next door – vote National!

  3. weka 3

    We need to shift to farming that not only doesn’t destroy fertile soil, but actively builds it. The basis of that is working with soil as a biological entity rather than a mechanical/chemical one. Fertility is created by the life cycles in the soil that are completely dependent on microbes. Kill or disrupt the microbes and the fertility and structure of the soil degrade.

    Currently we destroy soil by ploughing, leaving soil exposed, using artificial fertilisers, creating monocultures, overgrazing, cutting down trees and destroying natural ecosystems, and using techniques that dry out the land. Those things destroy the microbial life in the soil. All of that is avoidable.

    Examples of soil building farmers including Joel Salatin, who build soil at a rate far in excess of what biologists have been currently thinking.

    Joel Salatin’s family moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in 1960. Estimates of soil lost by plowing in the valley since colonial times range from 3 to 8 feet. When Joel’s father began grazing, there were areas of bare shale rock as extensive as 100 feet in diameter. In 2000, after 40 years of grazing, the largest of these rocky galls had been reduced to a few feet in diameter. By 2010, he couldn’t find any of these areas with less than 8 inches of new soil. He is making a case for 8 inches of soil created within a decade using a grazing plan with high-density herd impact followed by ample recovery time.

    http://www.nofamass.org/articles/2014/05/how-can-we-build-deep-rich-soils-new-england

    A good explanation of the soil food web and how it works,

    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-12-07/soil-food-web-opening-lid-black-box

    Demonstration of how to re-establish soil fertility in a dry, very degraded landscape by managing water in the soil and planting appropriately (“they laughed and said it couldn’t be done”) 5 mins,

    John Liu’s documentary on the restoration of the Loess Plateau (large scale restoration of desertified land to ecological food production).

    Holistic Management case studies in Australia, including large scale stations,

    http://www.soilsforlife.org.au/case-studies.html

    • RedLogix 3.1

      Great links weka. Especially that last one from Australia.

      Last year I had the chance to see what long-term drought is doing to farmers in NSW up close and personal. It ain’t pretty. The sad part is that only a minority of landowners like the ones in that link are so far willing to contemplate real change.

      Oh and the relationship between soil, forests and carbon capture has long stuck in my mind the the most vital link of all.

      Just local to us is Dave Holgren who can rightly be described as the godfather of permaculture here – we’re planning a visit as soon as we can find a free weekend.

      http://holmgren.com.au/

  4. fisiani 4

    So is this the latest excuse for no more houses to be build in the outer parts of Auckland and then blame the gummint for lack of houses?

    • weka 4.1

      stoopid trole.

    • Draco T Bastard 4.2

      The only thing stopping new housing in Auckland is the government and they’re doing that by forcing green fields development for their land banking mates. What we really need is medium and high density within the bounds that we have and to slowly bring those bounds in.

      We have no other choice as we’ve already burnt through the resources that allowed us to spread out catastrophically.

    • DoublePlusGood 4.3

      Pro tip: just intensify the isthmus and then you don’t need to have Auckland swallow Franklin and Rodney.

  5. Upnorth 5

    this website just gets loopier and loopier

    • One Anonymous Bloke 5.1

      This is from te Ara, the New Zealand government’s encyclopedia of New Zealand.

      Extent of erosion

      In 1997 the Ministry for the Environment noted that:

      50% of the country was affected by moderate to slight erosion
      10% had severe to extreme erosion (eastern North Island, parts of Taranaki, and the South Island high country)
      only 31% of the total area could sustain pastoral farming without significant control of erosion
      a further 28% could support restricted livestock grazing combined with erosion control.
      It stated that the erosion of agricultural soils in the North Island hill country and South Island high country was of major concern.

      Are they loopy too? Or do they just require defunding?

      • weka 5.1.1

        The irony there is that the current government is desperately trying to control the advice coming from its own departments on ecological crises. It really doesn’t want to know what is real. Loopier and loopier.

      • Upnorth 5.1.2

        thats because the Labour goverment took away all farming subsidies – fertiliser was no one…hmmm

    • saveNZ 5.2

      @Fisiani or Upnorth, if you eat food, then soil is important. Not really loopy.

      Just because you don’t understand something does not mean it is not important.

      If you only care about money, then check out both the price of building insurance now and the cost of food in your supermarket. You might also like to understand farming both livestock, plants and trees is part of the NZ economy and tourism is also important that is based on the idea we have a clean green country.

      There is a relationship between food, soil, plants, livestock, trees, and climate change. I am sure in the ACT 101 manual it is not there but even the most ardent climate change denier I believe still understands that soil and food are related.

  6. tracey 6

    BEES HAVE BEEN IN TROUBLE FOR A LONG TIME TOO AND FOR SOME REASON (BASIC IGNORANCE OF HOW OUR FOOD CHANCE WORKS PERHAPS) it keeps flying under the radar (figuratively speaking)

    sorry Caps lock

    Soil and bees.

    Those who think a focus on those is loopy truly need to check off the planet now.

  7. fisiani 7

    What percentage of NZ is developed land? Care to guess?
    Is it 50%? 30%? 20%? 10%? 5%?
    I’ll post the answer later after I laugh at the guesses.

  8. Sable 8

    The fools in Labour and National seem to think treating our country as a toilet is just fine. Yet parties that do care seem to get overlooked. Personally I don’t get it.

  9. fisiani 9

    I’ll give you a little clue. We have roughly the same population as Singapore, Singapore could fit inside Lake Taupo,
    Whatever the point of this post it is irrelevant in New Zealand which is vastly under populated.

    • saveNZ 9.1

      Earth to Fisiani…

      Soil is not about Housing, soil is about Food Production!!!

      Many of New Zealand’s exports are related to food production or forestry.

      Soil is very important in NZ and less important than in Singapore which probably has to import all their food and forestry.

      Your point even wrecks your argument about housing as Singapore has a larger population in a vastly smaller country so blaming our housing issues on not enough land is nonsensical. Not to mention irrelevant.

    • felix 9.2

      What does “under populated” mean?

    • weka 9.3

      Fisiani, where does Singapore get its food from? (and it’s other resources)/

    • Foreign waka 9.4

      I am surprised that you say that since NZ main income comes from agriculture and forestry. Now, this requires land and lots of it. Unfortunately, many farmers are very short sighted (as are the gamblers on Wall street). The credo is: we want the dollars, and we want it now. This of cause means that the land is being used like a mechanical plant which we all know is unsustainable. The question is, will it be people in their middle age seeing the disaster when they are old or is it their kids?
      NZ is an island and as such extremely prone for the top soil being just being blown off to the sea. As it is only the top layer that allows to grow anything, farmers have undertaken a combination of deforestation, whilst growing only pines in other parts, depletion of water and pollution of the rest of waterways, whilst all the while saturating with ever increasing amounts of pesticides and other chemicals fields that are fertile.
      This principle of increasing yields might be seen as perfectly OK in the realm of invented values in the Stock market, but the Earth and its means of supporting all life is a bit too big for the little boys to play with.
      Coming back to the population growth as you stated with the example of Singapore. Firstly, the density of people living there is inhuman – literally. Secondly, we first need to be able to feed every child in NZ before we should have more of the same. Please do not come back with more people = more economic activity as this is really not the case in the long run.

      • NZJester 9.4.1

        It used to be every few years the over used farm soil in ancient farms would refuse to grow new crops as the farmers exhausted the nutrients in the soil their crops needed to grow. Then they discovered you could improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants in the same area of ground by crop rotation. Modern farmers try to avoid the need to rotate crops by dumping on lots of fertilizer but that is starting to cause problems in our rivers and streams by choking up the waterways with nasty aquatic plants nourished by the fertilizer runoff into our rivers and streams when it rains. They should just go back to the well proven and environmental friendly method of crop rotation and avoid dumping all that fertilizer on the farms.

        • Foreign waka 9.4.1.1

          You are absolutely right. It would be even more important now to have the field rotation as well as certain plants as “neighborhood” crops to have a natural pest prevention in place.

    • Draco T Bastard 9.5

      That’s not a clue but an allusion and a piss poor one at that as it fails to take into account reality.

  10. Maui 11

    From what I can gather the Transition Town movement isn’t really a political group. Sure it’s a group where Green minded people will gravitate to and form some sort of community, but it’s not an activist group. I think there’s a big gap there for another green protest group to fill as the ecological pressures continue to mount and put pressure on society.

  11. aerobubble 12

    All species have the potential to explode in population, and just like all previous species we are inevitably going to hit a resource shortage, and have done over coming by adapting faster than genes use to, so much so that we did not take much of a hit.

    Eventually we will find a limit we cannot adapt culturally faster enough to, this would coincide with a rise in conservativism – forces opposed to change – will always occur when society needs to change. Heres the thing though, when we hit the wall, the final limit we cannot adapt fast enough, the conservative forces will be strongest, feeding off the growing clamor for change, but culture unable to agree on hw to achieve it since its a wall against which there is no solution.

    Well there is a solution, massive depopulation. Global one child policies. And until we actually can work together collectively globally we beyter get at it, crises in soil, water, energy, carbon show we are solving the easy bits of our spe ies needs and leaving all the hard problems, the wall exposed more clearly.

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