Digging the dirt has no part in this revolution

SoilThe Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson 

At last, a book offering a glimmer of hope to pierce the all-pervading environmental gloom!

Author Ohlson digs deep into topics like soil science, mob-herding, no-till farming and cover crop husbandry to outline how we might yet undo the damage we’ve done to our ecosystem.

Better care of the land means healthier crops and animals, fewer flash floods, greater drought resistance, fewer chemical inputs, fewer issues with run-off and – best of all – massive amounts of carbon sequestration.

Modern agriculture, she says, has led to the loss of 80 billion tons of carbon from the world’s soils and her hope is that scientists, researchers and agrarian free-thinkers, working with nature, can put it back.

Much of what’s written in the book has its roots in far earlier layers of knowledge. As Ohlson points out, Pliny the Elder knew all about composting.

Pastoralists have long practiced crop rotation, green manuring, animal grazing and companion planting and many an old-time gardener grew up with the mantra “feed the soil, not the plant”.

What’s new is our grasp of the complex microbiological activity going on beneath our feet.  Full understanding remains a massive challenge, but the progress of soil science is starting to yield answers – and some spectacular results.

Examples of regenerative farming, where overworked land has been carefully managed and restored to rich earth, are as compelling as they are heartwarming.

And the people behind it – the scientists, foodies and farmers harnessing partnerships between plants and microorganisms – are the book’s heroes.

Up against them are skeptical minds and the political and financial might of Big Ag. In 2009 the sector spent $133m on lobbying, that’s almost as much as the nation’s defense contractors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If the odds look unfavorable, then Ohlson suggests a grass roots campaign waged on the unlikely battleground of America’s lawns could be a turning point.

“What we do with our urban green matters, whether it’s in our yards or in our parks or even our highway median strips,” says Olson. And lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, taking up three times as much space as corn.

It’s going to take much more than that, of course, but it’s a start. And with farmers and ranchers trying to work the land in a more enlightened way, the seeds of the next agricultural revolution have been sown.

Postscript: The Guardian’s George Monbiot is highly sceptical of claims made by one of the book’s heroes

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