if it goes, we go…

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It’s a well-known fact that the skin is our largest organ and, since the depletion of the ozone layer, we tend to take much better care of it. By the same token, the earth’s soil represents this planet’s skin but it appears we’re not lavishing the same level of care and attention upon  it. Soil is under constant threat and in danger of disappearing right from under our feet.

Although the earth is over four billion years old, what we think of as soil today didn’t take form until about 450 million years ago. Essentially, it consists of eroded and decomposed material together with living micro-organisms and just one gram of soil is estimated to contain up to 50,000 such entities. Furthermore, it provides a home to a quarter of all animal species on earth. Soil is obviously central to human live as it contains the nutrients and water necessary for crops and vegetation to grow but it does plenty more besides. It acts as a vast and crucial store of carbon, which scientists estimate removes some 25% of all fossil fuel emissions, making it a vital ally against global warming.

Sadly, soil is disappearing at an alarming rate, equivalent to thirty footie pitches every minute and the average topsoil depth decreased from 14-18 inches at the start of the 20th century to 6-8 inches by the end. And it’s not just the speed at which it’s disappearing; it’s the quality of soil that remains. Worldwide, erosion, compaction, nutrient imbalance, acidification and water-logging are all impacting the ability of soil to support plant life. Some 30 million acres of land are lost to desertification, urbanisation and deforestation each and every year and agriculture remains perhaps its most immediate threat.

The world’s population – currently about eight billion – is predicted to hit ten billion in 2050 and the burning question is how are we going to feed and support such a number? Food production will have to rise vastly to feed humanity and agriculture needs to become far more sustainable if the soil is to be protected and ultimately serve its purpose. The ways to achieve this are becoming increasingly well-recognised: from taking modest steps that prevent erosion to adopting systems that preserve soil quality such as organic farming, crop rotation, and no-till agriculture. The bad news is that all these will produce lower yields.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change there is one step however that could be taken, globally, to preserve the earth’s soil and that is for all of us to eat far less meat. Sorry. Around 80% of the world’s farmland is used to either raise livestock or to grow plants to feed this livestock, which in turn produces less than 20% of food calories. Even a modest but sustained cut in our meat consumption would greatly reduce pressure on our precious soil and land. I’m afraid to say that meat has to again become the treat it once was and is it too much to ask to forego the daily doner and the weekly Whopper in favour of the monthly Big Mac?