The Story of Soil

Compost, Fungi, Rehabilitation, Salination, Soil Biology, Soil Composition, Soil Conservation, Soil Erosion & Contamination, Structure — by Rob Avis

What is the difference between soil and dirt?

Soil is alive. Dirt is dead. A single teaspoon of soil can contain billions of microscopic bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. A handful of the same soil will contain numerous earthworms, arthropods, and other visible crawling creatures. Healthy soil is a complex community of life and actually supports the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet.

Modern soil science is demonstrating that these billions of living organisms are continuously at work, creating soil structure, producing nutrients and building defence systems against disease. In fact, it has been shown that the health of the soil community is key to the health of our plants, our food and our bodies.

Why is it then, that much of the food from the conventional agricultural system is grown in dirt? The plants grown in this lifeless soil are dependent on fertilizer and biocide inputs, chemicals which further destroy water quality, soil health and nutritional content.

How did we get here? How do we turn this around? This is the Story of Soil….

Turning and Ploughing Soil

It all started about 10,000 years ago when humans started ploughing the fields in the experiment called agriculture. The settlers noticed that when they ploughed the field their crops would grow faster. Based on this positive feedback it was concluded that ploughing must be constructive and more fields were turned. However, in actual fact the bacteria, fungi and arthropods in the soil are essentially nutrient locked up in biology. For example, bacteria is almost 90% nitrogen. Ploughing the soil was killing the life in the soil resulting in an unregulated jolt of nutrient available to the surrounding plants. Over time, with the death of all soil microbes, the soil is unable to naturally support life and the farmer had to move to more fertile ground. The agricultural pattern emerged: deforest, plough, irrigate, salinate, desertify, move on.

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The 2013 World Food Prize: Monopolizing the War on Hunger?

The biotech industry has awarded itself the World Food Prize. A career Monsanto executive, a Syngenta scientist and a private industrial scientist will share the $250,000 prize for “feeding a growing global population.”

The trouble is, GMO seeds produce feed and fuel, not food. Over the last 20 years they’ve yet to feed any of the planet’s poor or hungry. In any case, the world already produces enough food for 10 billion people, so simply increasing production clearly won’t end hunger. The World Food Prize’s love affair with biotechnology not only elides the structural causes of hunger; it ignores the documented successes of agroecological methods for building in farm-scale resiliency and ensuring productive, sustainable yields.

The World Food Prize has become a corporate celebration of self. In addition to Syngenta, Pioneer and Monsanto, the foundation’s donor list includes Cargill, ADM, Walmart, Pepsi, Land O’Lakes, the American Soybean Association, the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau. Biotech boosters Howard Buffet and Rockefeller foundations each gave a cool million bucks; the Monsanto-friendly State of Iowa gave $1.4 million.

Even The New York Times suggested that this award may be a PR attempt to counter the growing global backlash against GMOs. It is also an effort to fibrillate the industry’s flat economic performance that has followed the heady days of the 2008-09 food crisis (in which they made record profits while a billion people were pushed into the ranks of the hungry). Apparently the way to revive lackluster seed monopolies is to guarantee them a monopoly on ending hunger. But giving the World Food Prize to the monopolies profiting from hunger is like awarding the Nobel Peace prize for going to war… wait, that’s already been done. So it goes.

It is no wonder farm and food activists have established the Food Sovereignty Prize to celebrate organizations working to democratize—rather than monopolize—our food system. While the World Food Prize emphasizes increased production through proprietary technologies, the Food Sovereignty Prize rewards social and agroecological solutions coming from those sectors that are most negatively impacted by the corporate food regime.

Given by the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, this prize, first awarded in 2009, has been given to honorees that include the MST—Landless Workers Movement of Brazil (2011), Family Farm Defenders (2010): La Via Campesina (2009) and honorable mentions like the Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer Movement), as well as urban organizations like the South Central Farmers of Los Angeles, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the Toronto Food Policy Council.

Behind the thinning public veil of the World Food Prize lurk the corporate interests of the monopolies controlling the food system. It is time to recognize the people and organizations fighting to end the injustices that cause hunger in the first place.

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Masanobu Fukuoka's Natural Farming and Permaculture

Masanobu Fukuoka is a farmer/philosopher who lives on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan. His farming technique requires no machines, no chemicals and very little weeding. He does not plow the soil or use prepared compost and yet the condition of the soil in his orchards and fields improve each year. His method creates no pollution and does not require fossil fuels. His method requires less labor than any other, yet the yields in his orchard and fields compare favorably with the most productive Japanese farms which use all the technical know-how of modern science.

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How is this possible? I admit, when I first went to his farm in 1973 I was skeptical. But there was the proof - beautiful grain crops in the fields, healthy orchard trees growing with a ground cover of vegetables, weeds and white clover. Over the two-year period I lived and worked there his techniques and philosophy gradually became clear to me.

I had not heard of permaculture at the time, but I can see now that Fukuoka’s farm is a classic working model of permaculture design. It is remarkable that Fukuoka and Bill Mollison, working independently, on two different continents with entirely different environmental conditions should come up with such similar solutions to the question, “How can people on live this planet sustainably and in harmony with nature.” Both claim that the principles of their system can be adapted to any climatic area.

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How Guerilla Gardening Can Save America's Food Deserts

Guerilla Gardening
"I am bringing healthy food to the community and showing people how to grow it and cook it," says Ron Finley. (Rickett & Sones) 

About three years ago, South Los Angeles resident Ron Finley got fed up with having to drive more than half an hour to find a ripe, pesticide-free tomato. So he decided to plant a vegetable garden in the space between the sidewalk and street outside of his home, located in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up, surrounded by fast food restaurants, liquor stores and other not-so-healthy options.

When the City of Los Angeles told him to stop, based on the old laws that said just trees and lawn could be planted on those skinny strips of urban land, Finley, who is a fashion designer and Blaxploitation memorabilia collector by day, quickly rose to fame as southern California’s “guerilla gardener.” By founding a nonprofit called L.A. Green Grounds, whose monthly “dig-ins” feature hundreds of volunteers turning overlooked pieces of urban land into forests of food, Finley became the face of a public campaign against the city, which owns roughly 26 square miles of vacant lots that he believes could fit nearly one billion tomato plants. The city listened, and is now in the final stages of changing the rules to allow fruits and veggies to be planted along sidewalks.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” said Finley, who recently answered a few more questions for Smithsonian.com.

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Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People

The microbial community in the ground is as important as the one in our guts.PICT0065_2inset.jpg

A small pine tree grown in a glass box reveals the level of white, finely branched mycorrhizal threads or “mycelium” that attach to roots and feed the plant. (David Read)

We have been hearing a lot recently about a revolution in the way we think about human health — how it is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other “habitats” in and on us. With the release last summer of the results of the five-year National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, we are told we should think of ourselves as a “superorganism,” a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one. For the first time, thanks to our ability to conduct highly efficient and low cost genetic sequencing, we now have a map of the normal microbial make-up of a healthy human, a collection of bacteria, fungi, one-celled archaea, and viruses. Collectively they weigh about three pounds — the same as our brain.

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Earth Working and Earth Resources

Earthworking is inextricably tied to harnessing the energetic exchange of water in the landscape quite often in Permaculture.  It also sets the framework for garden bed or food forest creation.  The earthworks often involve machinery but ultimately the shovel and human hand finishes it off giving the necessary edge and permanence it deserves.  Below shows this phenomena exactly as the beds had been created by machines to create a serpentine flow of water in a run, riffle, pool pattern.  This flow was accompanied by a sinuous shape of raised beds following the path of the ditch created to channel and harvest the tremendous amount of seasonal water flow.  After the inherent re-evalatuion process that comes with Permaculture design and managemetn of systems, we reworked these beds to garner better access and create more beds space at the same time through creating keyhole garden beds.

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Earthworks have long been used for agricultural or spiritual purposes whether it is the Minho Valley in the north with its extensive terracing or in South East Ohio, USA with Serpent Mound.  The later is 400 m (quarter mile) long earthwork that shows remarkable solar/lunar accuracy built within a meteor impact zone.  It shows patterns and once was hoe to sacred worship and honoring the rhythms of natural cycles.  This is one of the greatest architectural achievement on planet earth and is just one in a series of extensive earthworks that the mound building woodlands culture of this area erected.  Inside artifacts of tremendous value were found like wood effigy pipes and extremely intricate and pinnacly amounted shaped copper.

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Pesticidemakers in paradise

To many, Hawai’i is a veritable paradise on earth. But trouble has been brewing as the Big 6 pesticide and biotech companies have begun staking their claim on the islands.

“Pesticide corporations and their seed companies are consuming Kauai’s resources — especially land and water — at dramatic rates,” reports PAN staff member Paul Towers. Last week, Towers toured the island of Kauai with members of Hawai’i SEED to learn first-hand about the community group’s efforts to challenge Monsanto & Co. head on, and to advance their alternative vision of healthy farming systems. 

At least five of the Big 6 — BASF, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta — have some presence on the island. Their experimental corn rows cover the western side of Kauai, with fields abutting homes and schools. This proximity to residents has spurred Hawaiians to question and challenge the surge in genetically engineered (GE) corn grown on the island, and the pesticides that are required to grow it.

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Big 6 undermine Hawaii's 'right to know'

This month, the pesticide industry has been showing its muscle in Hawaii. The “Big 6”  seed and pesticide corporations — and their front groups — have undermined two public efforts to provide better information about pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) seeds and foods.

Industry successfully undermined two GE-related bills in the state legislature. One requires labeling of genetically engineered foods. The other requires pesticide applicators to keep track of and report use of hazardous pesticides, providing valuable data on how much GE crops are driving up the use of pesticides. But both are now much weaker than they started out.

Through extensive lobbying and public relations, DuPont, Monsanto and the so-called Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (an arm of CropLife) convinced legislators to amend the bills so that it would be decades before people would get information on pesticide use. And labeling would be limited to GE crops from other places.

The weaker bills are being taken up in additional House committees later this week before they move on to the Senate for consideration.

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The Environment Myth

What are the most environmentally sound ways of growing food? Are genetically engineered foods better for the environment?

The makers of genetically engineered seeds like to claim that this new technology makes farming lighter on the planet, reducing pesticide and herbicide use, for instance. But are genetically engineered seeds really better? What does the data and farmers experience show? This section explores the ways we can best farm with nature at heart.

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Farmacology: Farm-to-body lessons

Dr. Daphne Miller is author of The Jungle Effect and the new Farmacology: What can innovative family  farming teach us about health and healing? She is an associate clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, a practicing family physician, and a contributing writer for several magazines and newspapers. She writes about the connections between biomedicine, food, farming and the natural world. She lives and gardens in Berkeley. 

We caught up with her to chat about her new book.

What inspired you to write ‘Farmacology’?
I had been writing about food and nutrition for over a decade before it dawned on me that I needed to learn more about the places where our food is grown. Of course I’d advise my patients to look for labels like “organic,”  “pasture-raised” or “non GMO” as markers of healthy farms and food. But beyond the labeling, it was all pretty much a mystery.

So recently I began to take time away from my medical practice to visit sustainable farms and see what went on there. As I journeyed across the country, milking cows, gathering eggs, weeding, laying irrigation pipe and hawking produce at farmstands, I discovered that good medicine and good farming had much in common. In fact, I began to see family farmers as healers whose jobs were more complicated than mine, since they were responsible for the health of an entire ecosystem — soil, soil creatures, animals, plants, water, air, people — while I was expected to care for just one member of that ecosystem.

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From Food Security to Food Sovereignty

By asking Who is in control here? the sustainable food movement sets example for broader green movement

It’s an exciting time for the good food movement. Sometimes it can feel as though the efforts to make agriculture more sustainable are the most visible and active component of the broader environmental movement. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our relationship to food is visceral, emotional, and continues daily. Climate change, as important as it is, can feel abstract.

If you’ve seen Food Inc. or read any Eric SchlosserMichael Pollan, or Rachel Carson, you know that the sustainable food movement is trying to address the social and environmental problems created by an industrial farming system in which convenience  and profit trump everything else. The responses to industrial farming have included critiques like Silent Spring, the back-to-the-land and organic farming spark of the late 1960s, the family farm movement that resisted bankruptcy and corporate consolidation in the 1980s, and now the urban farming movement that has burgeoned during the past 10 years.

Many elements of the sustainable food movement have been organized by (or organized for) the two most obvious sectors of the food system: eaters and producers. Generally food activism has revolved around those who grow the food and those who eat it. In parts of the world where populations are still largely agrarian, eaters and producers are often the same people, but here in the United States (where the farming population hovers around 1 percent) consumers have been the dominant focus of food policy, at least for the past 40 years.

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The Permaculture Movement Grows From Underground

As a way to save the world, digging a ditch next to a hillock of sheep dung would seem to be a modest start. Granted, the ditch was not just a ditch. It was meant to be a “swale,” an earthwork for slowing the flow of water down a slope on a hobby farm in western Wisconsin.


And the trenchers, far from being day laborers, had paid $1,300 to $1,500 for the privilege of working their spades on a cement-skied Tuesday morning in late June.

Fourteen of us had assembled to learn permaculture, a simple system for designing sustainable human settlements, restoring soil, planting year-round food landscapes, conserving water, redirecting the waste stream, forming more companionable communities and, if everything went according to plan, turning the earth’s looming resource crisis into a new age of happiness.

It was going to have to be a pretty awesome ditch.

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The Healthy Farm: A Vision for US Agriculture

Industrial food production, which currently dominates U.S. agriculture, is a dead end. It damages air, water and soil, harms rural communities, and limits future productivity.

But there’s a better way. Scientists call it agro-ecological agriculture. We call it healthy farms. Healthy farms can be just as productive as industrial farms—and a lot more sustainable. Check out the infographic about healthy farm practices made by the Union of Concerned Scientists.