7/10 - The Circle of Soil, The Care Revolution issue #2
Once upon a time, the world was a place full of mysteries. We had no clue about the ocean currents; how they move massive amounts of energy, nutrients, minerals and organisms around the globe, thereby sustaining all marine and terrestrial life forms. We did not understand the role oceans play in climate and weather, droughts and hurricanes; how the trade winds bring dust from the Sahara to South America and fertilise the Amazon Rainforest. But yet we knew, deep inside, that we were part of something bigger. Our ancestor hunter-gatherers prayed to the mountains and honoured the forest. They attributed a living soul to plants and animals, rocks and rivers, storms and stars. What happened when we broke the spiritual connection between ourselves and our planet; our soils and our natural surroundings?
FROM PARTNERSHIP TO DOMINANCE
We cannot pin down one moment in history when we wandered away from nature. Rather than a singular event, it’s been a process driven by many factors that slowly pushed a wedge between humans and nature. The result? Human dominance over almost everything we can
lay our hands on. Welcome to the Anthropocene!
A popular theory that describes a major driving force behind this divergence, is the agricultural revolution, about 12,000 years ago. For the first time in history, we started to dominate the ferocious wild. And in less than 10 millennia, we came to look at nature as something to bend and break to our liking. Yet, not all ancient cultures that shifted from a nomadic lifestyle to agriculture cut their umbilical cord with Mother Nature. What other driving factors could have contributed to this shift?
Think of how ‘modern’ religions reshaped our spiritual connection with nature. Ancient animistic perspectives were crushed under organised religion, spread across the globe by colonialism. Religions that placed man, as the image of God, in charge of nature. But not only religion placed humans in a dominant position. The Enlightenment, summarised in Renee Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am”, did just that. It appropriated self-consciousness to humans only, putting them firmly at the top of the food chain. It also triggered an era of reasoning, science, and an increasing understanding of the material world. We started to dissect nature in order to understand it but viewed it as our unthinking, unfeeling servant. A big nail in the coffin of a metaphysical view of nature was our comprehension of the evolution of life forms, driven by competition and adaptation - less by collaboration and mutual benefit.
FARMING AGAINST NATURE
What happens when we bend or break natural ecosystems and squeeze them to the bone for the sake of maximising human benefits? Today, one-third of the earth’s productive land is degraded because of intensive farming. Our industrialised farming methods are a dead-end street. While inorganic fertilisers kill the soils’ microbiomes, ploughing cuts the connections between fungi and roots and may create an impenetrable hardpan just below the plough depth. The exchange mechanisms of nutrients, sugars, and carbon within the microbiome and plant roots get lost. While all looks well from above, a slow but steady disaster unfolds underneath the surface: the soil and all its biodiversity degrades and eventually dies.
Degraded soils often greatly reduce their capacity to hold water. Remember the hardpan? Rainwater will not penetrate quickly and deep enough. Plants wither more quickly during a dry spell. The saturated or unprotected topsoil washes away, reducing the soil’s water-holding capacity even further. The microclimate changes both under and above the ground, and a vicious circle of drought and desertification may kick in. Maddie Ackermans- Gockel, initiator of the regreening project of the Sinai desert by The Weathermakers, describes the destructive effects of breaking natural water cycles. “The Sinai desert in Egypt is a perfect example of how things can go wrong. There is no functioning biosphere, and no synergies between the soil, plants, water, and weather. Without healthy, living soil holding water and sustaining plant life, there is no evapotranspiration and no rain. And so, desertification spreads.”
Often, another characteristic of unhealthy soils is nutrient imbalances, which could be reflected in the products that we harvest. As Koen van Seijen shares: “research shows that essential micro-nutrients in our crops come directly from the soil. These nutrients are mobilised through chemical processes in which fungi, roots, bacteria, and water all play a role. Basically, the health of the soil reflects the health of that peach you will be eating.”
All these insights point to the direction agriculture has to take to produce sufficient quality food for every human being in the future. The world has made some baby steps in the right direction, but are we moving fast enough? Pieter van der Gaag is concerned about our progress: “agriculture has to become regenerative, and ecosystems restored. The FAO predicts that if we do not change our food systems, we might not produce enough food to feed the world by 2050. My daughter will be in her forties by that time. These thoughts can keep me awake at night.”
“We started to dissect nature in order to understand it”
THE HARM TO OUR BODIES
By now we should know how our efforts to maximise production often disturb soil health. Too much and imbalanced inorganic fertilizer applications, and the use of plain poison, will eventually kill our soils. The same goes for our bodies. Think of how a dose of antibiotics kills essential bacteria in our gut as collateral damage. While that example is relatively easy to grasp, the relationships between the quality of our food and our health are more subtle and have a much longer time horizon. Whereas there are contradictory scientific views on whether the baseline nutritional value of our food is declining, our agricultural production system is far from healthy. As Koen van Seijen tells us: “It is not just the lack of nutrients that affects our health, it’s also the chemical cocktail we consume from conventional farming methods.” He refers to the book ‘What our food ate’, written by David Montgomery. His research suggests not only an increasing lack of vitamins and minerals in our food but also the lost value of phytochemicals: some of which are thought to reduce inflammation, prevent DNA damage, help DNA repair, and slow cancer cell growth.
However complex these relationships are, messing with your microbiome is generally a bad idea. “It’s evident that without a healthy, balanced life in our guts, we are not capable of processing nutrients in the right way”, says Koen. “So, you are what you eat. We are not that different from the soil!”