December 17, 2009
As we give thanks for sustenance this holiday season, we might tip our hats to the life-supporting organisms living beneath our feet. Virtually all that we eat, from tofurkey to turkey, originates on fertile soil. From a consumer’s point of view, the story of a roasted bird begins at the supermarket, but the first chapter in every animal’s life is one of grass and grain converted to flesh. Fish, too, depend on a delicate food web that begins with land-based nutrients from the soil. Even the word human originates from the Latin humus (“earth”), the moist, loamy, earthy-smelling black matter from which life springs.
The soil organisms that make soil fertility possible include humble fungi, microscopic bacteria, wriggling nematodes, globular protozoa and hard-shelled arthropods. And let us not forget noble earthworm, of which Darwin described, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.”
These creatures form a complex interdependence with air, water, plants and each other -dubbed the soil food web. The life within this web performs a range of functions that promote fertility, including decomposing organic matter, controlling pests, improving soil structure, burying manure, retaining water, cycling nutrients… the list goes on. Haber and Bosch won a Nobel Prize for discovering mechanical means of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere for use as synthetic fertilizer. Symbiotic root bacteria have been doing the same task for millennia, without the unintended consequences of poisoned soil and poisoned water. Indeed, we may have discovered technological substitutes for the soil food web, but they come with a heavy cost and cannot be sustained. Beyond the environmental and human health risks, the use of synthetic agrochemicals eradicates soil biodiversity, creating a spiraling dependency on chemical alternatives as beneficial soil organisms are destroyed.
Organic farmers remember the importance of soil organisms in bringing seed to plate. We can too, by taking a moment to reflect on the tiny creatures that made our food possible, and by choosing foods grown without synthetic chemicals.
As a testament to the soil food web, this year’s holiday card features festive dung beetles, protozoa, bacteria and of course earthworms. It also includes a quote from Aldo Leopold, renowned conservationist, philosopher and educator.
Thank you, soil. Happy Holidays from all of us at the Center for a Livable Future.
– Brent Kim