Soil degradation is hardly a commonplace phrase in the media, and it looks dull next to the vocabulary we use for oil (ultra-deepwater wells, synthetic crude, hydraulic fracturing), but the ground beneath our feet is literally disappearing because of over-intensive industrial farming and global warming; and, like petroleum, soil isn’t a renewable resource.
In 2014 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that on average the planet has about six decades of usable topsoil left if current rates of degradation continue. An activist with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements told the FAO that thirty soccer fields of soil are being destroyed every minute, mainly due to wasteful farming practices. That statistic becomes even scarier if you realize that it takes 1,000 years to generate an inch of soil. At current rates of population growth the world needs to find 6 million hectares of farmland every year; instead, it is losing 12 million because of soil degradation. Already we have exhausted one-third of the planet’s farmable soil.
Soil erosion has been exacerbated by climate change but another key driver has been the transformation of traditional agriculture under the pressure of neoliberal economics. Market forces have led thousands of farmers in developing countries to grow environmentally damaging crops that place profits ahead of long-term sustainability. The consequences have been predictably dire. In Tropic of Chaos Christian Parenti recounts the experience of farmers in the southern Indian state of Telangana who, lured by the prospect of faster profits, switched to a genetically modified strain of cotton known as Bacillus thuringiensis. “At first it boosted output and incomes, but after a few years, incomes fell and the new cotton became a curse,” writes Parenti. “Its roots penetrate deep into the soil, sucking up all the nutrients. Before long the farmers need large amounts of artificial fertilizer—and that means taking loans. Scholars call this the ‘vicious cycle of chemical agriculture.’”
As the environmentalist George Monbiot notes, however, there are several antidotes to the disappearance of soil. To avoid the damage of ploughing, farmers in several parts of the world have successfully developed zero-tillage or conservation agriculture. Research has also shown that small allotments used for hand-cultivated crops in the UK have soils with “a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25 per cent more nitrogen.” This is part of the reason that urban allotments produce “between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.”
It hardly needs to be said that Guyana is extremely well placed to take advantage of this situation – to return to our former dream of being the bread basket of the Caribbean. Our wonderfully fertile soil is largely intact and we have yet to repeat many of the mistakes that have impoverished the topsoil in other countries. There is also no reason why the petroleum economy we are looking towards on could not be used to shore up our long-term agricultural future. What needs to change first, however, is our understanding of the true value of the land soil that produces so much of our food.
Industrial farming and food production – both fuelled by the bankrupt ideals of neoliberal economics – have largely blinded us to the value of soil, and allowed us to ignore the massive social and environmental toll that its practices have taken on other parts of the world. Returning our focus to the land, learning how to protect and develop it sustainably should be our first steps towards correcting this imbalance. It is time that we realize that it makes more sense to ground our long term economic future on the nurture of native soil rather than the uncertainties of offshore oil.