A special day, a day to reflect on how critical and important the soil is for everyone on the planet. Soil is a life-giving and a life-sustaining component of all our environmental ecosystems. Yet most people look at soil with disgust, thinking it is just dirt, acting as if it’s the dirtiest component of the natural world. I beg to differ and will set out information to inform our readers of just how crucial soil is to our very existence.
Soil is so critical in our survival. It controls the food security of the planet. It ensures the sustainability of the earth. All food sources begin in our soil. Therefore, it is critical that humans protect, care and improve soil ecosystems. First, there is the need to raise awareness of just how critical soil is to our existence and our total dependence on the soil. Then there is an urgent need to manage the soil and improve the quality of soil. Finally, there is the need to protect the soil from being inundated and buried beneath urban sprawl and expansion.
The FAO-UN tagline for 2022 is “Soil: where food begins”. That sums up why we need to understand the importance of soil. It is the motivation for managing and protecting the soil.
There are 18 nutrients, both macro- and micro-nutrients essential for a healthy soil to ensure robust, healthy plant growth, and subsequently healthy human beings. But soil degradation leads to a loss of these macro- and micro- nutrients. The result is that nutrient-deficient soil produces nutrient-deficient plants which results in nutrient-deficient human beings. That is you and me. At present, the UN estimates that 2 billion people suffer from micro-deficient nutrition.
The photosynthesis cycle requires atmospheric carbon, oxygen and hydrogen for the process of photosynthesis to occur within the plants. But within the soil, there is also need for significant quantities of the macro-nutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, along with carbon. These nutrients are key for all plant production. In addition, there are also micro-nutrients required but in much lower quantities that vary depending on the crops being grown. These micronutrients include boron, calcium, chlorine and copper, iron, magnesium, molybdenum and manganese, sodium, silicon and sulfur and lastly zinc.
This is quite an array of chemical elements. The environment has to promote plant growth. This is achieved through photosynthesis which in turns, enable plant growth. This process involves the metabolism of carbohydrates and the movement of starches. The photosynthates formed in the leaves then need to move to fruiting portions of the plant and to the reproductive organs.
As well as promoting plant growth above the ground, the plant has to establish strong and robust root formation and growth. This can also include the formation of nitrogen-fixing nodules on the root infrastructure of legumes. In addition, the plant root structure stimulates soil microbial activity. All the while, the plant develops the ability to fight disease, as well as build resistance to disease.
Enzyme activities are critical in the growth processes. They require nutrients to achieve this functionality. Such nutrients such as magnesium aid the plant in using iron and potassium. Sulfur and molybdenum are also responsible for various enzyme activity. Magnesium increases the availability of phosphorous and calcium. In addition, the plant needs to keep respiration at the lowest possible levels for sustained growth while increasing water-use efficiency so as to combat drier periods.
The actual process of fruit formation is critical. The state of maturity needs to be reached efficiently and quickly, while achieving good quality of flesh and flavor, and adequate juice quantities. Accompanying all this is seed formation of good quality and number for future plant production.
The nutritious foods then pass to the human and complete the various health pathways within the human body to ensure fit and healthy persons.
The question is what can we do to ensure healthy soils are producing healthy food products? There are a number of steps, we as caretakers of the natural environment can act upon. First and foremost, we need to revert to a traditional farming technique of crop rotation while ensuring that we reduce all potential forms of soil erosion. The agricultural industry needs to increase and maintain the organic content of the soils while reducing the dependence on artificial fertilizers.
The aggressive practice of deep tillage of soils is also harmful. Farming practice needs to move towards a shallower tillage approach, and also strive to keep soils under various forms of coverage so that wind erosion is minimised. The final step is to protect agricultural lands from being absorbed into urban development. Now that you understand just how complex and critical the soil ecosystem is, you can now start to take action to protect the soils while they carry out such essential work on our planet.