This Saturday, December 5, is World Soil Day, a holiday first recognized by the United Nations in 2014. At the Non-GMO Project, we’ll be up to our dirty knees in celebrating the soil and we invite you to join us. After all, soil is the basis of life as we know it, and we’re grateful for this truly astonishing resource every day of the year.
Did you know that one handful of healthy soil is home to more organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Planet Earth, stretching back to the dawn of humanity? To appreciate the undeniable awesome-ness of this fact, let’s relate it to something we can imagine: There are more living things in that one handful of soil than there are people in New York City multiplied by 12,000.
Yes, twelve thousand New York Cities would have a smaller population than a clump of soil. So what are all the residents of that handful of soil up to? How do they spend their time, with no museums or Broadway shows to go to?
In the soil, billions of diverse microorganisms work together to:
- Recycle nutrients
- Purify water and prevent floods
- Help to regulate the climate
- Generate the ingredients for life-saving medications
- Supply habitat for all the terrestrial creatures on the planet
- Produce the food, fuel, fibers and other materials that we rely upon
- Provide the foundation for all the infrastructure humans build all over the planet (including the structures that make up New York City)
That’s an impressive résumé.
Getting to know the ground beneath us
The scientific community came late to appreciating the wonders of soil. While Indigenous knowledge holds a much more holistic view of the life-force of soil, Western science considered soil an inert substance well into the 20th century. To Western culture, soil was the musty storage room of nature, holding some handy nutrients that plants needed to grow, but otherwise a bit of a waste of space.
How was soil so profoundly underestimated? Before the invention of microscopes, the smallest object anyone could see was about the diameter of a human hair. Even the most dedicated naturalist would be limited to observing the speck of soil on their fingertip, oblivious to the tiny creatures perched Who-like upon it.
After microscopes took the scientific community by storm in the 16th century, whole universes were now observable: tiny creatures that lived in water, in our food, on our very skin. It was a good while — centuries, in fact — before technology started to catch up with the exquisite complexity of the world beneath our feet. By the 1990s, scientists estimated they had identified maybe 10% of the life forms inhabiting soil.
They were wrong about that.
Within 20 years, stronger microscopes pushed that estimate down to 0.1% — which is where it stands… for now. There’s a variable quality to scientific inquiry: Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. In this case, they had to get better at building microscopes before learning how much they still had to learn.
The death — and potential rebirth — of soil
Here is why World Soil Day is a big deal: The food we grow and eat relies on healthy topsoil — that 2-3 feet layer of nutrient-rich material right under our feet. In the last 150 years alone, about half of North America’s topsoil has been lost. Through industrialization, habitat destruction, and a variety of ill-conceived or misused agricultural practices, human activity has decimated the biodiversity of the soil, breaking up networks of bacteria and fungi that are integral to life on this planet.
Some of the greatest losses are in the 900 million acres of agricultural land in the United States.
Weakened and degraded by extractive farming practices, soil is washed into waterways, turned salty and inhospitable by floods, or blown from one state to the next by fierce winds. The soil that remains is nutrient-poor, producing crops that are less nutritious than they were even two generations ago. But those 900 million acres are also where we can turn things around.
Read more about the effect of industrial agriculture on soil here
Save the soil, save ourselves
As stewards of the land, there is a great deal we can do. But there’s no “one-size fits all” solution. Ecosystems and the soil that supports them are regionally distinct. Each faces unique issues, including soil structure and makeup, rainfall and irrigation, elevation and sloping. Across the country dedicated innovators working to feed the soil that hosts them — like the amazing team at Soul Fire Farm, restoring 80 acres in New York State that the USDA deemed “unsuitable for agriculture”; and like Gabe Brown undoing decades of damage from industrial ag on his farm in North Dakota. Considering the scale of the task before us, we need the number of innovators and soil regenerators to grow exponentially.
One of the most important things you can do on World Soil Day is to challenge some of your thinking about soil. Like many commonly held natural resources, we have a tendency to claim ownership, to privatize and commodify. Our food systems, our seeds, our land and soils… I find myself falling into that thinking as a default. But we don’t own the soil; in reality, we belong to it. It produced us — and countless other living things — by supporting the transition from an aquatic environment to a terrestrial one. Without soil, humanity as we know it would not exist. Given this truly ancient connection, it becomes much harder to think of ourselves as separate from nature, no matter the trappings of our modern lives. Recognizing this connection helps us prioritize healthy soil — not just for ourselves, but for future generations whose world will depend on the choices we make today.
There is good news: Those microorganisms are astoundingly resilient. Soil responds eagerly to that 1980s pop culture adage: “If you build it, they will come.” If we build an agricultural system that welcomes and nourishes biodiversity, those tiny, unfathomable microorganisms will grow and spread and they will nourish us in return. We are ready to be revolutionized by knowledge. We’ve done it before: Imagine the paradigm shift that first look through a microscope must have caused.
It is a different and more urgent revelation that beckons us now, and a better future that lies waiting. To get there, we need to think bigger — and much, much smaller.