Soil is undoubtedly one of the most important natural resources on the planet. It provides the base for all plants to grow and thrive, those of which provide life-giving oxygen to all life on Earth. Without it, life could simply not exist. It also serves as a home and resource for thousands of organisms. Its nutrients and minerals show up in food products. This is why its sustainable use is highly required to continue humanity’s, and furthermore, all life’s longevity.
Problems arise through over-fertilization in factory farming, an uncontrollable rate of wildfires due to manmade climate change, and swift erosion due to landscaping and other human controlled activities. These actions destroy essential nutrients and lead to infertile and unusable soil. Infertile soil is wasted soil. The problems can be managed in a variety of ways. This includes sustainable farming practices, less reliance on fertilizers and chemical pesticides, and forest conservation. There is absolutely no doubt that soil use will be required as long as humans are alive.
This paper addresses the current importance of soil sustainability. It evaluates the relationships between human action and soil degradation. Lastly, it describes the potential solutions to these addressed problems, and what actions can be taken to continue sustainable soil practices.
The first, and most basic, importance of soil is that of plant health. Forest ecosystems rely on nutritious soils to thrive and provide shelter and food for millions of species. Farmers need healthy, fertile soil to have a good growing season in order to support themselves, their families, and ultimately, millions of people. It controls the distribution and spread of plants, meaning if pollen and seeds spread to infertile soil, nothing will happen. Furthermore, many species call the soil home. Most of these species affect the soil in a positive way, and help lead to natural sustainability. One of the most helpful species, specifically, is the generic earthworm. They improve soil drainage by burrowing and loosening/aerating it. This helps move minerals and filters water that trickles into the groundwater systems. They also build fertile topsoil in a relatively short amount of time (approx. 30 years), naturally building a fertile soil system. This also improves general soil structure, and leads to a heightened level of plant productivity and fertile pasture development. Without earthworms, none of this would be possible. They provide borderline microscopic benefits to soil that is humanly impossible to achieve. However, this symbiotic relationship goes both ways. The soil has to provide the nutrients that the earthworms need to survive. They cannot live in infertile areas. Without soil sustainability, helpful organisms such as the earthworm would be eliminated. A lesser, but still important use of soil is historical cultural information. Soil is built in layers, which gives geologists and archaeologists a tool to use to accurately date artifacts, and tell a story of the given area. It can be used as a link to the past, and to learn how past cultures were ran. Disrupting this natural layering feature would disrupt history and nature’s archive.
The biggest problem that is currently destroying soil faster than it can be rejuvenated is over-fertilization in factory farms. Since these farms require intensive crop yields and unnaturally quick growth, the soil is quickly dehydrated of natural nutrients. This leads the farms to use synthetic chemical fertilization methods. These work in the short term, but research shows detrimental effects in the long term. Over-fertilization leads to a higher concentration of salts in the soil. Too high of a salt concentration leads to infertility, and destruction of microorganisms that are crucial to the rejuvenation process. It causes swift plant growth, but consequently poor root structure. Poor root structure in crops can actually end up lowering yield, which is counter-productive to the goal of factory farming. Continued fertilization could ultimately destroy fertile cropland in the matter of a few hundred years. At the most extreme level, this could cause human extinction due to starvation. Humanity would have to find a different way to provide food for billions of people just to survive. Another damager of soil is massive wildfires. A prescribed burn is one thing, but there has been an undisputed increase in wildfires since the industrial revolution, due to climate change caused droughts. The drier forests are more flammable and easily susceptible to combustion. Wildfires are historically helpful to soil, actually making it more fertile over time. However, as seen on the Pacific West coast specifically, the increased rate of forest combustion is not giving adequate time for the soil to heal. The fires leave unimaginable amounts of sulfur behind, which is a natural soil limiter. Usually, this actually helps the nitrogen levels (nitrogen is an essential soil nutrient) over time, but due to the time frame between each fire, sulfur chokes the soil, leaving behind infertile soil and no room for forest regrowth. Fire also kills topsoil microorganisms, and the rate of occurrence does not give them time to rejuvenate either. Another huge issue that is tough to control is soil erosion. Erosion happens in a variety of ways and severities, from simply walking on a steep slope and moving soil, to upland farming and deforestation. Research has shown that immense soil erosion leads to infertility. For example, upland farming, that is, farming on a slope, leads to soil thinning and eventual erosion. There is a natural cycle and balance between soil erosion and soil productivity. In nature, these two opposites are kept at a perfect balance. However, overuse of the sloped soil disrupts this balance. This affects the longevity of farming and the overall health of the soil in the long run. It is clear, through intensive studies, that human related activities are threatening the health of the soil.
There are many ways that these issues concerning soil can be avoided. One of the simplest ways is to improve sustainable farming practices. A relatively young practice is no-till farming. This involves leaving crop stubble above ground rather than plowing it under, and planting the seeds by using a specialized tool. This leaves organic matter at the surface, which aids in nourishing the plants. However, only around 16% of the United States, and only 5% of global cultivation areas practice no-till farming . It greatly reduces erosion risks (by up to 98%), as well as surface runoff. Moving completely to no-till farming would greatly reduce problems with soil involving erosion. Another sustainable farming practice is using organic fertilizers rather than synthetics that dehydrate the soil. This will help the soil stay more naturally nutritious, and will ultimately be better for the crops. The trade-off for this, however, is that organic fertilizers tend to be more expensive. A way to sustainably mass produce these would be required as well, but the benefits outweigh the costs in the long run. Another soil degradation prevention method would be increased forest protection and conservation. A protected forest is less susceptible to unnatural fires and can be monitored more closely. This would save the natural forest cycle, and the soil underneath. All of these practices will contribute to the longevity of the soil, and that will determine the longevity of the human race among other species.
The significance of this report is that soil longevity is required for life longevity. Further research must be done to clarify the suggestions made, especially on that of the feasibility of organic fertilizers. Our practices now will determine the soil health of the future, so it is important to know and study this information.