Over the course of our brief time on earth, our species has managed to have a great impact on this rock solid body we developed upon. One of them is soil depletion.
It’s hard to tell if there ever was a time we actually improved anything for anyone but ourselves, I’ll go out on a limb here and say no. Because there are so many self-inflicted issues we are having right now, starting with climate change and ending with severe overpopulation, we tend to overlook some of them or dismiss them as not as grave, or as issues to tackle another day. When was the last time you truly and deeply thought about soil? You know, that stuff you pretty much walk on all the time and use to grow the food we all desperately need? Chances are that this, now, is the first time in ages that you, if ever, thought about soil and, as it is strongly connected with our food supply, grasp that the way we use and treat soil can potentially have severe consequences.
Fertilizers: Humans Suck at Long-term Thinking
That’s the hard fact we have to face constantly when talking about issues like climate change. Our management of soil is another great example of our inability to sustainably use our resources, neglecting the thought that there could ever be a point in time when the party’s all over. And that point could be here faster than we all think. Due to our rapid growth in population, we’ve been ramping up food production and especially farming all over the world, trying to grow as much as possible in as little time and space as possible. It was just a matter of time until we faced a bottleneck there.
You see, soil isn’t just dead debris and dirt that happens to be a decent grappling point for random plants, it is a living thing full of nutrients, bacteria and all sorts of other stuff, that define how well and what kind of produce farmers can grow there. In order to feed the billions of people on our planet, we should have planned out what resources we have at our disposal (volume of farming ground and quality of soil) and thought of an effective way of distributing food to all those that need it. Of course, we didn’t, we instead relied on improving our soil with fertilizers, effectively disturbing the natural process of soil rehabilitation and causing the soil depletion through overuse, industrial deforestation, and desertification.
We’ve become heavily reliant on fertilizers made of phosphorus and nitrogen that have very slow natural cycles and are very good to ramp up food production on a short-term, but effectively cause the said bottleneck, especially if those fertilizers were to become unavailable in the future.
But why would they?
Because they already kinda are. Phosphorus is mined and while it is still available now, it is not evenly distributed, making prices reliant on the countries that have vast phosphorus reserves. The building of a cartel around the distribution of phosphorus, for example, is therefore entirely possible. The consequences could be devastating, especially for poorer countries and their farmers. Being unable to use the fertilizers they rely upon, would mean an ineffective use of their land resulting not only in less money for farmers but, effectively, a food shortage on a grand scale. It would reduce soil depletion, but inefficient for farmers to achieve.
The frequent use of fertilizers can impact other food sources as well, such as wildlife. There have been reports of fertilizers washed into the Gulf of Mexico creating dead zones for fish. And soil depletion isn’t the only threat to our food supply we might face, as shown by the increasing number of people starving due to droughts this year alone in countries like Somalia, South Sudan or Yemen.
Soil Depletion: The Message is Clear
We have to look after our soil and have a rock solid food distribution in place, to be able to abstain from fertilizers and make sure nutrients in our soil can replenish in their natural cycles. If fertilizers are needed, those do not have to be mined necessarily, there are experts that say we could easily recycle nutrients like phosphorus from garbage and use those for fertilizers, making them more broadly available, even if there ever were restrictions on them. The best practice would be to introduce soil management and soil protection to more farmers, to improve their soil by means of agroforestry or similar methods, though those can place a heavy burden on the farmer as they are not as economically efficient and a lot of work to maintain.
As long as our natural soil is lost faster than naturally made, we could and will run into a bottleneck of food distribution and food shortages could be inevitable due to rising population numbers and the increasing use of farmland for non-food (e.g. biofuel) products, that can put even more pressure on farmers to juggle the demands they’re facing. In order to have a steady food supply in the future, the whole world has to think about soil and its use in farming and present solutions to reduce the impact on our food supply. This is not a problem of any single country, it is another one that we all share.
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