The true value of soil

Food practically grows all by itself on planet Earth.
Illustration by Leslie Dean Brown. © 2015. All rights reserved.

Let me ask you something: do we actually ‘make’ our own food? Do we? The answer is “no we do not make our own food”. We just throw pre-existing seeds in the ground and make sure most of them get enough water to sprout. We don’t make it from first principles; it grows all by itself from the soil! We simply harvest that food (once it has already grown).

Let me ask you the next question: do we humans ‘make’ soil? Not can we make it, do we make it? Again, no. Bacteria, worms and insects do that for us. Sure we might put organic matter such as apple cores, banana skins and orange peels onto the old compost pile and think we’re making

loads more soil. We might even throw things like paper and cardboard onto our compost as well and think we’re creating heaps and heaps and heaps of soil.

But are we? What are we really doing? Once gain, where did that apple core come from? Where did that banana skin come from? Where did that paper come from? Where did those trees come from? The chances are you’ll find that most of it wasn’t hydroponically produced (using liquid fertilisers and zero soil). Was it? No. It was mosty farmed, from pre-existing soil. And I’m guessing that that soil, ladies and gentlemen, took thousands and thousands and thousands of years to form.

And so you might say: “well okay, I know people that actually eat 100% hydroponically-grown foods, I’ve seen it”. And again I ask: but the people who made the hydroponic setup, did they also get all of their food from hydroponically grown plants? What about the people who made all that fertiliser? What about the people who built the whole darn fertiliser setup? What about the people who transported all of the above? And what about the people who built the vehicles so that all of that lot could be transported? Did they all eat hydroponically grown food too?

Is everyone in that hydroponics industry only eating 100% hydroponically-grown foods? Short answer? No. So my point is that at the moment, even if we can hydroponically grow a bunch of food, it’s being heavily, massively subsidised by nature.

Do you know how many apple cores, banana skins and orange peels it takes to make just one kilogram of soil? The answer is: I don’t know, because I lost count. What I can tell you is that I have been throwing ALL of my organic scraps, and those of a second person, into one giant green 400L bin for the past two years. Everything from my hair to my paper offcuts. And it has never filled up. But how much soil did all that organic matter take to produce in the first place, for two people? I’m willing to bet that it was WAY more than just 400 litres.

So is it any wonder that farmers commit suicide, when they tell us that the quality of soil is falling?

We certainly tend to the plants. We avoid flooding unless we’re growing rice. But what I think humans really do is collect, store and distribute food. If we had to do all of that for 7 billion people, for 7 million people, for even 7 thousand people, with no air, no water and no soil to begin with, I think you’d see scientists really starting to scratch their heads. Can’t be done! It just can’t be done.

In other words, we’re not somehow magically separated from nature. Scientists are never really able forget this. If seven, eight, nine or ten billion people want to live on this planet for more than a few centuries into the future, then we’re going to have to re-evaluate our values and our priorities. I think it’s time we refocus our efforts on Earth (even Carl Sagan’s last book, pale blue dot was as much about Earth as deep space and look how ‘into’ deep space adventures he was).