Dirt, it turns out, has been underestimated. Healthy soil is perhaps the most essential part of a thriving ecosystem. In the face of climate change, farmers and scientists are working to better understand how soil supports a healthy planet. It turns out that without it, the rest of an ecosystem suffers.
Soil is composed of various materials, including sand, silt, stone and water. Depending on the geographic location, it can be sandy, dense, rocky or porous. Soil is a living thing and composed of millions of tiny organisms that help keep it healthy. Different types of insects, bacteria and fungi all work together to keep things in balance. Fungal networks, known as mycelium, play a vital role in helping dirt communicate with plant roots. In fact, the largest known organism in the world is a fungus that covers 4 square miles of forest in the Pacific Northwest.
Modern farming practices, land development and pollution are threatening the health of our planet. Soil is composed of different biological layers, with topsoil used for growing food. Quality topsoil is crucial, but it is also fragile. It can take over 1,000 years to generate 3 centimeters of topsoil. According to the United Nations, soil degradation is so rapid that the world’s topsoil may disappear in the next 60 years if farming practices continue as usual.
In the face of climate change, solutions to storing carbon are essential. As it turns out, healthy soil may be the key to sequestering it. Carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of atmospheric carbon. Healthy soil is much more effective at keeping carbon, and invisible networks of fungi and bacteria are the reason for this.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the complexities woven beneath the soil and how mycelium communicates with plant roots to warn of disease and disturbance. Dirt health is predicated on innumerable systems working together, often invisible to the human eye. While we may not notice what makes it healthy, it is easy to tell when it’s damaged. For example, unhealthy soil has a difficult time managing bad bacteria. Unbalanced bacteria levels can also increase the likelihood of disease, including the incidence of parasites that can harm animals and humans.
If we can regenerate healthy soil by balancing bacteria and fungal levels, we can use the ground to help pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Not only does this decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but it also makes land more adept at handling drought. Carbon sequestration is a vital part of fighting climate change, and returning this element to the soil also supports a healthier ecosystem. It’s one of the most effective solutions for storing carbon to mitigate climate change.
Unhealthy agricultural practices are the main reason for soil runoff and topsoil loss around the world. Fortunately, farmers are looking for new ways to grow food, including regenerative agriculture. In this process, soil is considered the most important part of growing food and that all farming practices should be designed to support a healthy soil network.
While most regenerative farms are relatively small compared to the large corporate operations that dominate the United States, they are increasingly popular. Even industrialized farms are embracing certain concepts around regenerative agriculture. A handful of larger corporations, including General Mills, are now enacting regenerative agriculture practices that encourage biodiversity to rebuild the soil.
Regenerative agriculture supports the soil by using a variety of techniques. Pastured animals are often incorporated to provide natural fertilizer and help manage pests. Cover crops are used to prevent soil erosion in annual crop fields. Perennial plants and trees are planted to support fungal networks and add biological diversity to the ground. Also, beneficial pollinator habitat is added to strengthen plants that use the soil to grow.
Regenerative agriculture regards the natural ecosystem as a well-functioning system. The principles behind it stress that growing food can be achieved in harmony with the natural functioning of the ecosystem, instead of trying to force nature out of the crop field.
Healthy Soil, Happy Planet
Healthy soil is integral to sustainable farming practices. As farmers adjust to climate change, protecting and regenerating healthy soil will be the most important way to support our planet.