To put it simply: we need food. And except for seafood, we need good topsoil to grow nutritious food. We also need the topsoil to allow vegetation to remain stable and strong in its place. Thus the health of our topsoil is one of the most critical factors in keeping the health of our planet.
This fertile upper part of the soil which we call topsoil is the upper surface of the Earth’s crust. And it’s not much topsoil that we’re talking about. It is no deeper than approximately eight inches (20 centimeters).
Thus one good stroke with a shovel, or a pick, can put you to the depth of your topsoil. What is it that makes this thin layer of topsoil so necessary, compared to the soil underneath?
Earth’s topsoil mixes rich humus with minerals and composted material resulting in a nutritious substrate for plants and trees.
Plants and trees will of course grow even if the topsoil is not so rich, but the better quality the topsoil, the better quality of the ‘product’ — the vegetation or food — that grows in it. And the better quality of the food we grow, the healthier we are.
Or, in other words, when thinking about your health, you should concern yourself with the nutritive qualities of your food. Potatoes, apples, spinach or whatever other food, grown in rich soil will have more nutrition than the same items grown in depleted soil.
So if you are concerned about this, then you should consider how healthy or nutritive your soil is.
Thus the topsoil represents a delicate nutritional balance. And healthy topsoil results in healthy food and an overall healthy environment.
The delicate nature of topsoil was misunderstood until very recently.
An example of the dangers of ignoring topsoil occurred in the years leading up to the Great Depression in the USA, in the 1930s. Up to that time, farmers rotated crops to create a better crop yield but did not understand the process they were dealing with.
So, when economic pressures came full-on in the 1930s, farmers planted profitable crops repeatedly, rather than rotating the crops. There was just too much need for some predictable income. They needed a cash crop. In the short term this may have helped farmers, but ultimately this practice stripped the topsoil of nutritive value.
As the stripped soil did not support plants, even light winds could pick up the limited remaining topsoil.
The stripping of the topsoil, what we call erosion, has devastating affects on the quality of our food, and also on the ability of the land to retain water.
There has always been soil erosion. As part of a natural process, it’s termed as ‘background erosion’. In general, background erosion removes soil at roughly the same rate as soil is formed. But ‘accelerated’ soil erosion — loss of soil at a much faster rate than it is formed — is a far more recent problem.
This accelerated erosion is always a result of mankind’s unwise actions, such as overgrazing or unsuitable cultivation practices. These leave the land unprotected and vulnerable. Then, during times of erosive rainfall or windstorms, soil may be detached and possibly transported long distances, perhaps to the sea.
Accelerated soil erosion by water or wind may affect both agricultural areas and the natural environment, and is one of the most widespread of today’s environmental problems.
According to BBC news, “Soil erosion by water, wind and tillage affects both agriculture and the natural environment. Soil loss, and its associated impacts, is one of the most important (yet probably the least well-known) of today’s environmental problems.”
One way to avoid soil erosion and to enrich the land is to use crop rotation as an essential practice. And we need to understand why we do it.
Modern sustainable farming emphasizes crop rotation. Farmers keep crops in rotation; allow fields to lay fallow, and plant nitrogen fixing plants. Many farmers also plow plant material into the topsoil to enrich the humus and spread compost.
They may also put manure in the topsoil, to make it more nutritious and rich.
This delicate nature has not always been misunderstood. For example, in Biblical times farmers apparently knew to let the fields be unplanted for one year out of seven. This allowed the fields to regain their vitality.
Crop rotation was already mentioned in Roman literature, and referred to by great civilizations in Africa and Asia. From the end of the Middle Ages farmers in Europe for centuries used a three-year rotation, with rye or winter wheat followed by spring oats or barley, then letting the soil rest (fallow) during the third stage. The fact that suitable rotations made it possible to restore or to maintain a productive soil has long been recognized by planting spring crops for livestock in place of grains for human consumption.
So the next time you look at your soil, don’t just think of it as “dirt” but remember that our planet’s existence depends on topsoil.
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