Soil - dirt - sustains food, and food sustains life.
Dr. David Montgomery: “soil restoration means no longer treating soil like dirt.” (Photo: Pat Martin/ Kings County Advertiser/Register)
Losing valuable farmland means finding an intelligent solution to feeding a lot more people on a lot less land.
“Healthy soils, healthy crops” was the message at this year’s Scotia Horticultural Congress in Greenwich (Nova Scotia) January 24 and 25.
Hort Congress is the annual event held by the Nova Scotia vegetable and berry industries, attracting hundreds from across Canada and the U.S. The event is an opportunity to interact with guest speakers, share information, learn about the latest in research and technology, marketing and management; and network with trade show hosts.
Keynote speaker Dr. David Montgomery, a geomorphologist and environmental author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, provided insight into soil use - and abuse - while preserving soil conservation.
“Why is soil so important?” Montgomery asked during his lecture.
“Under the right circumstances, any one, or any combination, of political turmoil, climactic extremes or resource abuse can bring down a society. Alarmingly, we face the potential convergence of all three in the upcoming century.”
Shifting climate patterns and depleted oil supplies could collide with accelerated soil erosion and loss of farmland, he warns. Should world fertilizer or food production falter, political stability could “hardly endure.”
Avoiding practices that played a role in the demise of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and Rome will ensure sufficient food supply for future generations.
“Fundamental conditions for sustaining a civilization are sustaining the soil and its fertility.”
Montgomery quoted Plato and George Washington, who also studied erosion, read the landscape and made pleas to conserve and replenish land. He also made the analogy between credit cards - lost, saved and stored - and the preservation of soil.
“We loose 1 mm per year - that can strip soil and add up over time,” Montgomery said about plough-based agriculture. “We can reverse the historical pattern by how we treat the land.”
Montgomery suggested a more land-friendly solution: organic and no-till farming. Tilling removes weeds and mixes fertilizers while shaping soil into rows for planting and irrigation. Eliminating tillage reduces labour, fuel and irrigation, slows the loss of carbon by increasing organic matter from crop residues decomposing where they lie, increases water content but decreases erosion - increasing yield and profits.
Can we support 10 billion people in the future, one person questioned following the lecture.
“If we don’t think about managing the soil now, we will have to manage the quality of life later. Since the dawn of history, we’ve degraded the soil. It’s a simple challenge - reinvest in life at the bottom.
“First and foremost,” Montgomery said, “soil restoration means no longer treating soil like dirt.”
David R. Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington.
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