The rate at which a farmer’s underwear decayed when buried in the soil was once considered an indicator of the quality of the soil. The theory is that the faster the cloth gets deteriorated, the more beneficial microorganisms there are in the soil. If you bury the trousers today, you might be able to find them unworn the next year.
Reason being, professionals agree that half or more of the world’s farmable land is in poor condition. Nearly 30 farmers in India commit suicide on average every day, and soil deterioration is blamed as a contributing cause along with debt.
Sadhguru, a well-known Indian guru, has been at the helm of a worldwide movement called SaveSoil, which aims to restore soil health in countries all over the world, and this effort continues. He is advocating for measures to be taken to encourage farmers to maintain a level of organic matter in their soil of at least 3% through means such as financial aid.
Soil will turn to sand if we remove it, and then it will be game over, he argues. If we don’t fix our soil issue, we’ll all be living in the desert. The historical record is replete with examples of the devastation caused by bad soil.
“We all remember those photos of the North American dust bowl from the 1930s and being very appalled by it,” says David Montgomery, professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and author of three books on soil, including Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
He also notes that most soil deterioration is the result of gradual processes rather than sudden catastrophes.
“Consistently deteriorating soil at a quicker rate than it can be restored to fertility drains the land’s reserves, reducing its viability as a source of food. The top layer of soil contains the land’s fertility, and decades or centuries of agriculture have literally peeled it off, making it more difficult to grow food.”
Overgrazing, monoculture (growing the same crop year after year), and the overuse of weed herbicides are just a few of the practices that degrade soil. The plough, however, is a technological advancement that has greatly aided farmers.
From tiny family farms in Africa to massive, mechanized operations in North Dakota, this antiquated piece of equipment is indispensable in the agricultural world. While modern plowing is effective at removing weeds from the soil, it also reveals beneficial soil bacteria that have been hiding beneath the surface. Sunlight kills these bacteria, resulting in barren soil.
The plough, along with other technology like the combine harvester, has increased the efficiency, output, and overall size of farming. Contrarily, Ben Raskin, who oversees agroforestry and horticulture for the UK’s Soil Association, argues that we need to reevaluate the use of technology in agriculture.
When it comes to soil and plant health, “we have to make sure that technology supports both,” he adds. To do so, you may need to acquire some new equipment. Companies like John Deere, who specialize in agricultural tools, are releasing “no-till technology” to farmers. This is machinery that is specifically designed to disturb the soil as little as possible.
For example, there are seed planters that use a drop system to plant seeds in individual holes as opposed to a lengthy trench dug by a large blade.
It might also mean employing robots to aid with planting and weeding in a less destructive fashion. AgroIntelli, a Danish agricultural technology company, produces one such gadget called the Robotti. Andy Cato, formerly of the British band Groove Armada and now an organic farmer, provided feedback throughout the prototype testing phase.
Cover crops, which are not harvested but planted to prevent the soil from becoming barren, assist to enhance soil structure by accumulating organic matter in it.
At some point, though, Mr. Raskin suggests we shift our attention away from surface-level fixes and into the ground underneath. Much of the technological attention in farming has been on chemical pesticides and physical technology, but now is the time to start thinking about biology, he argues.
Scientists estimate that just around 10 percent of soil life has been formally discovered so far. For too long, “the whole universe that lies below earth was kind of invisible to scientists,” according to Prof. Montgomery. And, he says, “Soil is one of the last huge frontiers of science – to comprehend what’s going on in it.”
In an effort to supply farmers with the finest nutrients for their land, a better understanding of soil composition might give rise to entirely new sectors like biotech that focuses on DNA sequencing the bacteria in the soil. Some of the most novel and game-changing insights have resulted by returning to more conventional, even archaic, methods.
Willow woodchip mulch was applied around trees in a Soil Association Innovative Farmers project trial to reduce weeds and disease. The trees’ immune systems were activated due to the acid in it. And it’s possible that some of the most significant advances in human medicine might be hiding just under our feet.
An paper published in Chemistry World suggests that natural molecules derived from the soil microbiome might be a useful source of pharmaceutical ingredients. It notes that teixobactin, a toxin that might lead to the first new class of antibiotics in 30 years, was identified by screening soil samples.
Farmers concerned about the health of their soil don’t need to give up their underwear because there are more precise methods available. Even while sending soil samples to a lab for analysis is possible, it can be time-consuming and costly. The widespread availability of cellphones in the modern era of abundant data and internet access offers a further option.
Harvest Agri is a UK company run by Jack Ingle, and its flagship product is a microbiometer soil test. The farmers collect a soil sample, mix it with a particular solution in a test tube, and then transfer the mixture to a sheet of paper.
Scan the sample with a free app (for both Android and iOS) to find out how many fungal and bacterial microbes are present. The quality of soil is being evaluated by more than just farmers.
The SoilHealthDB database was developed by a team of scientists to compile data on soil health measurements from locations all over the world. Moreover, the European Union (EU) launched the EU Soil Observatory last year to keep tabs on soil data, promote soil research, and aid in the creation of soil-related policies.
However, Professor Montgomery believes that looking backwards may be crucial to developing cutting-edge farming technology in the future.
“It’s taking some of the ancient wisdom, like crop rotation and cover crops, and combining it in new ways with modern technology,” he explains, “the sensors, the robots, and the prospecting for microbial inoculants [beneficial micro-organisms].