A Brief History of Soil
To the unknowing eye, holding a handful of soil might be perceived as simply holding a handful of dirt.
What our highly evolved human eyes fail to see, is the pulsing life in that handful, the billions (yes, BILLIONS!) of microorganisms performing complex scientific processes. Soil is the basis of life and is an essential moderator of our ecosystems.
There are so many exciting advances and controversies in soil science at the moment, but before diving head-first into the exciting bits- we must first wade into the (not-so) shallow end of what soil is, and where it comes from.
In our previous blog post, soil remediation with cannabis, we had to start at the beginning of soil contamination, with the industrial revolution. In this post, to study the soil itself, we must go back even farther. To the beginning of agriculture and the rise of civilization.
Our Journey to Farming
In the grand scheme of things, our human race has not been around for very long.
Life on earth in the form of single-celled organisms originated an estimated 3.8 billion years ago, whereas our Homo sapiens species made their first appearance at a mere 200,000 years ago. Humans have barely been around for 0.004% of the Earth’s history, and for most of this time, we have been hunters and gatherers.
Hunters and gatherers, true to their name, were groups of early humans that lived day-by-day, searching for their food and hunting to survive. They were nomadic in nature, travelling to areas that could provide them with the nutrients and shelter they needed.
It was only 12,000 years ago that our species transitioned to agriculture, a move that changed everything, by allowing groups to form settlements and domesticate plants and animals. There is still a debate on how long this transition took, but the end result was the same; communities become more invested in irrigation, workforces became specialized, and novel technologies were created.
This eventually made possible the development of the first cities, and agriculture gave birth to civilization.
Ancient Civilizations and Soil
The civilizations that thrived and gained power most quickly during that time, were those with the most solid agricultural systems. Ancient Egyptians were able to transform barren, dry land, into bountiful fields via a harmonious relationship with the Nile River. Every year, the Nile River flooded, depositing a thick layer of nutrient-rich soil onto the land- the prerequisite of a successful harvest. Agriculture became tied to politics and growth, and thus Egypt became one of the most powerful ancient civilizations of all time.
The Greek and Roman civilizations that followed, took the existing agricultural technologies and expanded them in size, allowing for the development of even larger empires. Through observation, they developed a better understanding of soils and their properties.
Though knowledge of soil was not based on scientific experimentation, there was still much learned about soils in ancient times. Irrigation, erosion controls, and land-plowing were utilized, and there grew an understanding that certain soils were more productive than others.
History saw a succession of agricultural revolutions happen all over the inhabited world, and the development of more successful crops became the focus. A once sparsely-populated earth become filled with different nations, all increasingly reliant on managed soil for survival.
The Salt Theory
As nations developed and agriculture expanded, we began to realize how little we knew about soil and the life within it.
We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot. – Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1500’s
Scientists started taking a closer look at this life-giving substance, and various theories emerged that shaped what we know about soil today.
One of the first prevailing theories on soil and plant nutrition, was Bernard Palissy’s “salts theory”. This theory suggested that plants take their nutrition directly from water, and that soil is merely a vessel for storing that water and supplying it the plant. It took over 100 years for scientists to discover the impact of nitrogen on plant growth, which ultimately led to the start of soil chemistry. By the 16th century, soil was regarded as one of the most important factors in the economy, enticing further study by scientists of various branches.
The Humus Theory
The next theory that dominated well into the 19th century, was Albrecht Thaer’s “humus theory”. Humus is the Latin name for soil, and in this context, refers to the organic matter that makes up the soil. This theory proposed that humus was the only source of nutrients for plants, and that contrary to previous belief, the air and water were the vessels and supply systems for those nutrients. Through this theory, soil productivity could be increased by adding organic matter to the soil, usually in the form of manure or plant materials.
The Mineral Theory
From the 1840’s to the 1940’s, we saw mineral fertilization substitute organic practices. Chemists found ways to create plant nutrients and minerals in laboratories, and it was discovered that plants could absorb these minerals and internalize them in their tissues. Not only could these minerals be utilized by the plants, but the plants could autonomously turn them into the organic materials they needed. These discoveries led to a drastic increase in land fertility, and led to Justus von Liebig’s “mineral nutrition theory”. Although the understanding of soil organic matter was also increasing at this time, it was no match in productivity for the rise of mineral-based farming. Through chemical nutrient supplementation, the artificial fertilizer industry was booming.
Since the 1940’s, there has been much debate about soil and plant nutrition, and the use of synthetic fertilizers. Soil is now seen as a complex system, made up of biological, organic, and mineral components, all intricately connected.
The State of Our Soil
Soil is being studied for its role in our ecosystems, and the negative side-effects of some modern agricultural practices are being revealed at an alarming pace.
Haunting reports have recently emerged from the United Nations, stating that if soil degradation continues at its current rate, all of the world’s topsoil could be gone in 60 years.
Yes, you read that right.
It’s not a typo.
That’s not a ‘we can leave this problem for future generations and their flying cars’ kind of fact. This is a present-day problem, one that must be addressed now, for current humanity and for our future generations.
Soil is a non-renewable resource. It is said that 3cm of top-soil can take 1000 years to generate, but half of the topsoil on the planet has been destroyed in the last 150 years. Poor agricultural practices are destroying soil 10 times faster than it is being created. Those are staggering statistics.
England just announced that, for the first time ever, its agricultural bill will contain measures for the preservation and remediation of their soil. These measures will require a huge investment of 10 million pounds a year, but in their current soil crisis, there couldn’t be a greater urgency.
Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison to soil loss–George Monbiot
Soil Loss is NOT Inevitable
There are various methods that preserve and improve soil health. Tony Juniper, director of the WWF, responds:
None of this is inevitable. We could have a farming system that restores soils and wildlife, while at the same time stopping agricultural run-off polluting our rivers. To do this we need not only the right legislation, however, but also robust enforcement and proper advice for farmers, otherwise new policies simply won’t work.
Significant changes for the better are attainable. There are options, we just have to choose to change, and provide the right support where needed. One type of support that we need, is to focus on farmers, rewarding those using practices that support and promote healthy soil and crops. This support should also be part of a global approach, where nations come together to solve a global problem.
Sustainability is a balance of needs, a need to protect our planet, and a need to feed a population that continues to grow. Our society is demanding a new sustainable model of agriculture, and for this reason we are starting to see an increase in the use of cover crops (aka. Green manure), agroforestry, conservation tillage, and organic farming. It is only through practicing sustainable agriculture that we can protect our environment, public health, and still profit economically.
We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming…Organic (farming) may not be the only solution, but it’s the single best (option) I can think of.
How BlueSky Organics Can Help
In our previous article “Why Organic’s Better: The Benefits of Organic Cannabis”, we discuss the need for organic growth.
With the pending cannabis legalization in British Columbia, we are expecting a “gold-rush” of companies and investors jumping into the cannabis industry with dollar signs in their eyes. Considered by many as a “cash-crop”, Cannabis is a relatively easy plant to grow, with rapid growth and little maintenance required.
Why would investors spend the extra time and money in going organic?
As we have seen from history, agricultural boom may be initially great for an economy, but ultimately has negative side-effects on our environment. It can only be anticipated, that with the increased demand for cannabis, there will be large companies looking to exploit that demand.
At BlueSky Organics, we know better. And we know that you know better too.
By growing organically, you are producing a higher quality product with less environmental impact. Your product will be just as potent as your competitors, with the added health and safety benefits that organic growing brings.
With the shift in agriculture going towards sustainable farming practices, why not jump ahead of the legislation. We have already seen an overhaul on the rules for organic production in other countries, and expect to see similarities in the 2020 Canadian Organic Standards review.
The demand for organic food and crops is higher than ever before, and the demand for organic cannabis will surely follow.
BBC Contributors (2018). History of Life on Earth. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/history_of_the_earth
Burger, J. and Fristoe, T (January 2018). Hunter-gatherer populations inform modern ecology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/01/22/1721726115.short.
Groeneveld, E. (December 2016). Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Societies. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.ancient.eu/article/991/
Zimmer, Carl (October 2016). How the First Farmers Changed History. The New York Times. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/science/ancient-farmers-archaeology-dna.html
Mason, Matthew (2018). History of Agriculture. Environmental Science. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.environmentalscience.org/history-agriculture
Khan Academy (2018). Ancient Egyptian Civilizations. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings/ancient-egypt-hittites/a/egypt-article
Brevik, Eric. (2005). Global Sustainable Development. A brief history of soil science. http://www.eolss.net.
The Works of Xenophon by H. G. Dakyns, Macmillan and Co., 1897. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/x/xenophon/x5oe/index.html
Simonson, R. W. 1959. Outline of a Generalized Theory of Soil Genesis. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 23:152-156. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/sssaj/abstracts/23/2/SS0230020152
Manlay, Raphael, Feller, Christian, and Swift, M.J. (2007). Historical evolution of soil organic matter concepts and their relationships with the fertility and sustainability of cropping systems. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880906002854
Korcak, Ronald (1992). Early Roots of the Organic Movement: A Plant Nutrition Perspective. HortTechnology. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://horttech.ashspublications.org/content/2/2/263.full.pdf
von Liebig, Justus (1847). The Mineral Theory. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://microsoil.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/ABOUT-NATURE-Liebig-Law-Theory-1.pdf
Contributors of Ohio State University (2018). Rattan Lal Profile, for the School of Environment and Natural Resources. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://senr.osu.edu/our-people/rattan-lal.
Arsenault, Chris (2018). Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues. Scientific American. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/
Aldred, Jessica (April 2018). 10 Million Pounds a Year Needed to Ensure England’s Soil Is Fit For Farming. The Guardian. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/24/10m-a-year-needed-to-ensure-englands-soil-is-fit-for-farming-report-warns
Monbiot, George (March 2015) We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it. The Guardian. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/25/treating-soil-like-dirt-fatal-mistake-human-life
MacDonald, Mark (Jan 2018) Green Manure Cover Crops. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.westcoastseeds.com/garden-resources/articles-instructions/green-manure-cover-crops/
FAO Contributors (Oct 2017). Agroforestry. Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://www.fao.org/forestry/agroforestry/en/
Minnesota Department of Agriculture Contributors (2018). Conservation Tillage. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from https://www.mda.state.mn.us/protecting/conservation/practices/constillage.aspx
The Government of British Columbia. (2018). Cannabis. Retrieved from the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia website May 4th, 2018 from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/public-safety/cannabis
Skerritt, Jen. (Mar 2018). ‘Like a Yukon gold rush’: Marijuana is the new gold as former mining companies go to pot. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://business.financialpost.com/cannabis/marijuana-is-the-new-gold-as-former-mining-companies-go-to-pot
Kelly, Ash (Sept 2017). High on the agenda. Retrieved May 4th, 2018, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/high-on-the-agenda-delta-mayor-champions-produce-over-pot-at-ubcm-1.4310608