After decades of extreme exploitation, almost half of the earth’s soil is exhausted or ‘chronically degraded’. And that has major consequences, the UN agency Combatting Desertification (UNCCD) warns in their latest report.
The threat of climate change, global warming and excessive CO2 emissions is well known, but we cannot say the same of the soil that is steadily withering away beneath our feet. At least, not when we look at the number of people taking a stand in city streets and demanding political change. If we speak of soil extinction, streets are empty and without a sound.
Leonardo Da Vinci said: “We know more about the movement of stars than the ground beneath our feet.” Perhaps he still has a point when we consider the extent to which human activity stifles and rapes it. The ground beneath our feet is not valued, even though mankind is closely connected to the soil. Look at the Latin word ‘homo’ that means human and is derived from the word ‘humus’, Latin for earth. Obviously, we live off the earth and come from the earth.
The fact that 87% of all life on earth depend on healthy soil and that land degradation is a matter of life and death is incompatible with the lack of appreciation for the soil beneath our feet. How on earth are we going to avoid urgent food shortages in the year 2045, when the world’s population is expected to rise to 9.2 billion and food production will be reduced by 40% due to extreme exploitation of soil life? In countries like India, farmers are committing suicide, not because the bank is breathing down their necks, but because plants stop growing. The extreme heat wave that is currently plaguing the country makes it even grimmer.
But India is far from being an isolated case; European countries too, face the threat of desertification. This means that organic material in the soil is disappearing until practically only sand remains. The soil is becoming extinct. Agricultural soil that is alive contains a minimum of 3 to 6% organic material, such as decayed plants that contain carbon and micro-organisms. In Europe, 75% of the soil contains less than 2% organic matter. For example, half of Spain’s crops are already experiencing desertification, with the soil containing less than 1% organic matter. The UN expects another area the size of almost South America to deteriorate to the same state if the current situation continues until 2050.
Land degradation has major economical impact causing a loss of $235 to $577 billion in crop productivity per year according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Food quality is declining
Soil-health is vital to maintain the nutritional value of crops. According to a 2018 article from the scientific journal Nutrients, the average mineral content of calcium, magnesium and iron in cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes and spinach in the United States dropped by 80-90% between 1914 and 2018. If it isn’t in the soil, it isn’t in our food.
Why has the soil deteriorated so much? First, a tiny lesson in biology.
The soil is a living organism, a home for hundreds of billions of micro-organisms (microbes), such as bacteria and fungi, but also for earthworms, minerals, water, air, carbon and nitrogen that plants need in order to grow.
In a teaspoon of soil live about one billion microbes that support the growth of the plant. A greater biodiversity makes soil life healthier and so does it to our food. According to the FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 56% of agricultural land in the European Union is suffering from biodiversity loss.
The microbial life in the soil is comparable to the microbial life in our gut. You could say soil life is like the stomach of the earth. The healthier and more biodiverse soil life is, the better the crop is able to absorb minerals, nutrients and water from the soil. And the higher the nutritional value of our food, the better it is to our gut. If the soil is poor, it impedes the absorption of water, which is fatal for the plant. So the soil also functions as a water filter and as a storage of carbon, which is released as CO2 when the temperature of degraded soil warms up. This happens when large areas of open land are without any vegetation.
Causes of ‘chronic land degradation’
Intensive agriculture, massive deforestation, urbanisation, loss of biodiversity, and the frequent use of pesticides have caused the degradation of soil life at an alarming rate. Open land without any shade is at the root of poor soil life. Grass, humus, shrubs, trees, leaves, they all provide the necessary nourishment and shade, although the modern farmer would rather get rid of them. Agriculture urgently needs to be sustainable instead of intensive, if we still wish to count on the land for our food production.
Remarkable support in the combat against desertification comes from a man who has been highlighting the importance of healthy soil and the alarming threat of soil extinction for decades. He has repeatedly spoken at various international platforms, including the UN. This man is the Indian Sadhguru, a famous spiritual teacher, speaker and yogi. With his Save Soil movement, he wants to put land degradation on the political agenda and advocates for an improved soil life. The initiative was presented on 5 April 2022 at the United Nations in Geneva by his Isha Foundation and supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Sustainable Development Goals Lab (SDG Lab) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Motorcycling guru visits 26 countries
He is everything you would expect from a guru, with the characteristic long grey beard, turban and scarf, but also he is not. At the moment he travels on his motorbike from London to India in 100 days, a 30,000 km solo journey to 26 nations to draw attention to the extinction of our soil. On this journey, he brings together world leaders, experts and citizens to discuss this issue.
“Soil-extinction isn’t just an ecological challenge. It is an existential threat. If we do the right things now, we can radically change the situation and regenerate the soil in the next 15 to 25 years.” According to Sadhguru, the solution is to bring back at least 3-6% organic matter in the soil by shading the land with vegetation and enriching the soil with plant residues and manure. If we don’t do this in time, soil life will not be able to recover for at least a hundred years, resulting in enormous damage.
‘Our’ Carice van Houten as ‘Save Soil cultural icon’
Actress Carice van Houten and radio presenter Giel Beelen – both from Dutch soil – and hundreds of interested citizens welcomed the Indian guru in Amsterdam last March. Between global leaders as Dr. Jane Goodall and David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the Game of Thrones actress is one of the ‘cultural icons’ of Sadhguru’s Save Soil movement.
Today, 10 May 2022, the 15th UN Convention to Combat Desertification is held in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, and will be entirely devoted to the alarming UN report. Sadhguru is one of the speakers.
But there’s hope. We can still turn the tide, the recent UN report concludes. “Let it be a wake-up call,” says UNCCD Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw, who recommends reforestation and sustainable agriculture to combat the threat of soil extinction.
A study in 2021 shows that crop yields in Africa have increased up to 300% among farmers who have made the transition to regenerative farming practices. Regenerative agriculture includes using as few pesticides as possible, increasing biodiversity by growing different crops, and covering the land with crops for as long as possible to ensure nutritious soil.
When we realise that 95% of our food comes from the soil, but that the same soil is rapidly degrading and probably won’t be able to produce any food in 60 years, it should be a wake-up call for all of us, ‘woke’ or not.
Translated in English from a previously published article on Reporters Online by the same author.