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For Our Children’s Earth: Rebuilding the Soil, Sustaining the Future

Earth is “the blue planet”, in consequence of its large water body, which weakly absorbs light at the red end of the optical spectrum, so highlighting wavelengths at the blue end of the range. Viewed against the blackness of outer space, a very narrow blue band can be seen to encircle the globe, which represents the Earth’s atmosphere, and is so coloured because air molecules scatter blue light more strongly than they do red light. The word “earth” may also mean soil, which is the fragile living skin of the Earth. Without soil, and the overlying atmosphere, with its 20% oxygen content, life on the surface of the Earth could not exist. Certainly there would be no humans.

Soil consists of a mineral component, which is generally a mixture of sand, silt and clay. Since soils vary considerably in their composition, they may be compared universally using a “soil texture triangle” (Figure 1):

Figure 1. Soil-texture triangle, showing the composition of the clay, sand and silt mixture of minerals that make up different types of soil. Soil organic matter is not included in the diagram, although this is a vital component of a healthy, fertile soil.

A good fertile soil is a loam, which, as represented in Figure 1, has an approximate composition of 20% clay, and of the order of 40% each of silt and sand. These terms do not reflect the chemical composition of the three components, but their particle size. Thus, sand grains are of the order of millimeters or less in diameter, while clay particles are of nanometer dimension; particles of silt are of a size somewhere in between these orders. Soil also contains organic material, referred to as soil organic matter (SOM), or soil carbon (SC). This ranges from identifiable plant components, to their more indistinct decomposition products, created by passage through the bacterially replete bodies of earthworms, and by the actions of the other creatures, and microbes that live within soil The mass of the living creatures themselves is also accounted in the reckoning of SOM.

Soil is indeed both fragile and living. It is fragile because it is prone to degradation, principally by erosion. It is living because it contains an amazing number of different species within it, collectively termed the soil food web It is thought that a single teaspoonful of soil may contain a billion microbes. A major source of soil erosion is deforestation, which may occur naturally, e.g. through forest fires, or by human actions, to clear land to grow commercial crops on, e.g. soya beans in South America. Slash and burn methods are employed on a smaller scale by groups of farmers who are poor and need to feed their families. More exquisite methods are sometimes employed to clear ground of trees, shrubs and all else, e.g. the process of “chaining” where a ship’s anchor chain, maybe 400-600 feet in length, is strung between two 50-100 tonne tractors. If 2 inches in diameter, such a chain will have a weight of 7-10 tonnes, and so, by driving the tractors, the chain is dragged along the ground, where it simply rips out anything in its path by the roots.

Soil that has been so denuded is vulnerable to erosion, all the more so when it is left uncovered as a result of monoculture cropping, and during the winter, when the erosive elements of wind and water are at their most forceful. While erosion is the major (85%) cause of soil degradation globally, other impacts are important, e.g. compaction, crusting (hardsetting), loss of nutrients, contamination, salinization and loss of biological life in the soil. Once the productivity of the land has been lost, the strategy is to move on and clear yet more forest. According to the United Nations, one third of the world’s cropland has been abandoned over the past 40 years due to degradation and desertification, while 52% of the land used for agriculture is moderately to severely affected by soil degradation of the world’s food production systems and 50% of its livestock are considered to be vulnerable to climate change, while 12 million hectares of crop land are lost per year (23 hectares per minute), where 20 million tonnes of grain might have been grown. All of this against an estimated requirement to produce 60% more food by 2050, not only to match a population that is predicted to increase  from around 7 billion now, to 9.5 billion, but that there is a rising “middle class” who are likely to have greater expectations from their diet, i.e. want to eat more meat, which is far more land-intensive to produce than growing crops to be eaten directly Thus, we are destroying the productivity of that same land from which we demand a relentless increase in production: two powerful forces pulling in opposite directions, with an inevitable “give” at some point.

There is a close connection between soil and water. In the natural order of things, water evaporates from plants and wetlands (evapotranspiration), rivers and oceans, forming clouds in the atmosphere from which rain falls. The rain is absorbed through the soil surface (infiltration), and is taken up by movement through the soil (transmission): when the rates are high for both processes, the soil acts as an effective “sponge” and can absorb large amounts of water When the soil becomes compressed, e.g. by heavy farm machinery or over-intensive grazing, a process called “compaction”, the water cannot enter it so easily and tends to move elsewhere, as “runoff”. Water runoff contributes to soil erosion: when the soil is unable to retain water, it runs off the surface taking large amounts of soil with it. This soil ends up downstream in rivers (silting-up) where it creates bottlenecks and causes the water to back up. Since it is in the surface layers of the soil that nutrients, e.g. phosphate, are concentrated, essential fertility is lost from the soil in the process. Soil may also be eroded to below the optimum rooting depth of plants, which stunts their growth. Production of maize has expanded in the U.K. since the 1970s, mostly grown to feed cattle. The stubble is left over autumn and winter, and is not ploughed into the ground, meaning that fine soil is exposed to be washed downstream, when the impacts of wind and rain are at their strongest. Regions in the South West of England, including the catchment that drains into the Somerset Levels, have some of the greatest concentrations of maize crops in the country, and it has been estimated that some 50% of the sediment in the Tone and Culm rivers are from soil eroded from fields of maize grown to feed concentrated and highly producing dairy herds.

Uplands, if well-managed, can absorb large quantities of water, and planting trees and shrubs has a hugely positive effect in reducing the volume of water that ends up downstream. Rather than intensive grazing, which can urge soil compaction, a loss of vegetation and increased soil erosion, less intensive and all year round grazing can help to improve the soil structure and its overall quality. The presence of soil organic matter (SOM) is a critical feature of good soil structure and its ability to retain nutrients and water. This improved soil structure also enhances the ability of soil to absorb and hold water, so that a high SOM content can make a dramatic effect in the capacity of soil to hold and transmit water, while the loss of SOM has a large and detrimental effect on the holding capacity of soil for water and its ease of becoming compacted. In simple terms, a good soil is like a springy sponge, and in its ability to hold water, not only is runoff retarded but the lower lying aquifers are able to recharge, so preserving supplies of freshwater, as well as mitigating surface flooding. As a point of note, however, in some locales that were inundated during the 2013/2014 winter, in the U.K., even after the surface flood-waters had been pumped away, flooding still remained a problem due to “groundwater pressure”, where the raised water table pushes up through the ground, and up through the floors of houses that have only floorboards as their ground-level barriers, rather than solid concrete.

In a 1937 letter to U.S. State Governors, urging soil conservation laws, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” This was around the time of the dust bowls that arose in the northern United States and Canada, where former prairie lands had been turned over to farming. The impact of ploughing, loss of prairie grasses, and drought literally caused the soil to blow away. The resulting effects on the populations were dramatised by John Steinbeck in his “Grapes of Wrath”, where some 2.5 million people were displaced as they made their way toward California, looking for work and for land on which they could grow food. Good soil has been described as “the real World Bank”, meaning that it is the one thing, of all things, that we must invest in. Without soil we have nothing.

The main critical factor in mitigating soil erosion is to keep it covered throughout the year. In Utah and Montana, it has been demonstrated that ground cover has a profound protective influence, and for uncovered ground some 17 tonnes of soil/hectare/year can be lost This amounts to an annual loss of soil depth of about 1 mm, and at this rate, about one inch of soil would be lost in 25 years. However, this decreases markedly with increasing ground cover, so that it is nearer 1 tonne/ha/year for 100% coverage. At around 0.1 mm/ha/yr (about the thickness of a human hair), this implies that it would take 250 years to lose that same inch of soil. Under natural conditions, soil is created at a similar rate to that at which it is eroded, and it takes 200-1,000 years to form an inch of soil, depending on climate. Thus, by covering the ground, the rate of erosion is brought back to the natural balance point, rather than it being lost at 10-40 times the natural rate, as it is on agricultural lands presently.

The following are some notes, taken from a talk that I give on the broad subject of soil and other resource depletion and what we might do to cope with it. The emphasis is on Permaculture and the Transition Towns movement, so to move from the global village to a village of globes, i.e. to more resilient, self-sufficient localised communities.

Some ways to protect and regenerate soil:

•No bare ground. Reforestation (Plant Trees!). Planting cover crops (peas, beans, buckwheat, clover, etc.).
•Building Soil Organic Matter (SOM). No-till farming.

  • Shielding the soil through the use of sand fences, shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks. Plant Trees!
  • Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration: “reforested” five million hectares barren land (Niger) → 40 trees/hectare.
  • Protecting forests: soil/carbon plus “lungs of the Earth”.
  • Mulch from pruned trees, and straw to cover fields: increasing soil-water retention and reducing evaporation.
  • Plant Trees! Help soil to absorb water, reduce flooding.
  • Building the “Soil Food Web” (one billion microbes in every teaspoonful of soil).


•Permaculture = Permanent (Agri)Culture.

  • Permaculture = a good design!
  • “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” Albert Einstein.
  • Seeing the whole picture, and placing design elements together to support one another.
  • “The problem is the solution.” 
  • Companion planting; no-till, building soil structure, efficient use of water, smaller PNK inputs; capturing carbon; best use of light; exploit “3rd dimension”.
  • “Three sisters”: bean + corn + squash. Plants mutually support each other.

Forest Garden (Principle of “layers”).

A forest garden is designed on the principles of a natural forest, with a mutually supportive arrangement of plants (Figure 2), and soil flora and fauna. The different heights that the plants grow to and the approximate symmetry between this and the root-depths, enables an optimum harvesting of the available sunlight, and the water and nutrients at different soil-depths. In a food-forest garden, plants are chosen to yield edible produce.


Figure 2. A forest garden is a beneficial arrangement of plants etc. that exploit the 3rd dimension, both above ground and below it, in terms of the different rooting depths of plants. Such an arrangement can be highly productive.

A forest garden can be grown even in spaces that are not immediately obvious for food to be produced, e.g. the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) roof garden (Figure 3), which is a superlative example of urban permaculture.

Figure 3.RISC Roof Garden”… yes, it’s really on the roof of a building in Reading town centre, growing in just a foot of soil!


The world’s woes… (the “changing climate”).

  • Carbon emissions – climate change.
  • Peak oil/Globalization. Population: 9.5 billion by 2050.
  • Declining resources: water, oil, gas, coal, uranium, metals, phosphorus.
  • Land degradation: soil erosion – desertification. One third of global arable land abandoned from erosion in the past 40 years.
  • Health: Obesity – sugar in diet, lack of exercise. Unemployment. Community?

“Nature deficit disorder”?

  • Increasing poverty: rising food costs – imported fertilizers – unfair global trade practices.

Unstable global economy. Resources: the real limits of growth?


All are symptoms of a single problem – excessive (once-through) consumption.

  • PRESENTLY: “The sins of the fathers”, an impoverishing scenario where finite resources are exhausted year on year, and the Earth is increasingly polluted by those same processes that consume them, e.g. carbon emissions.
  • GROWTH: “growing our way to hope”, where growth is possible, if not globally, on the local scale. Resource-resilience, as opposed to resource-depletion.
  • Using permaculture, we can provide much of our food and materials on the local scale, with greatly reduced inputs of crude oil, natural gas, fertilizers, and freshwater.
  • Soil is rebuilt from carbon taken out of the atmosphere, thus acting to ameliorate climate change. A win-win situation!

If every university on Earth was destroyed we would lose nothing. If we lose the forests, we will have lost everything” (Bill Mollison, founding permaculturist).

  • Far fewer universities. Many will transform to teach more practical subjects. More local colleges and schools.
  • Need to introduce life-skills from early school.
  • We’ll need more electricians, plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, mechanics, cooks, farmers and gardeners. NOT 50% university graduates.
  • “Transition Education” – schools, colleges, universities – rooted in sustainability, will provide the re-skilling to build self-reliant communities, and enable us to escape from global collapse: climate, economy, resources.
  • Transition Towns movement: bottom-up (“grass roots”) approach, based around building resilient, more self-sustaining communities (less reliant on central government).



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