"Our Endangered Dirt"
Published in the Namib Times, 15 March 2013.
By Marcia StantonOur soil is endangered. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classified as either degraded or seriously degraded – meaning that it is nearly impossible for plants to grow on that land. The World Economic Forum has demonstrated that if current rate of soil damage continues, we have only about 60 years of topsoil left in the entire world.
What does it matter? In short, soil produces food and we cannot live without food for more than 3 weeks. Soil is a critical building block to all life on land and it enables plants to grow. We and other species depend on plants for food, oxygen, habitat, medicine, and regulation of the water cycle and climate.
Although we need soil for our survival, we do things to the soil which make it unusable and damage our health. We pollute and damage soil by mining, using pesticides and chemical fertilisers (phosphate and nitrate), and disposing of oil, fuel, coal ash, industrial wastes, and garbage. This pollution causes food to be tainted with toxic substances, resulting in health problems. Long term health effects include cancer as well as brain, skin, nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract damage amongst others.
Soil pollution also causes depletion in soil health, resulting in long term health impacts on people and the environment. The same pollutants that harm people also damage animals, plants and micro-organisms in the soil. Statistics have shown that land pollution alone results in a loss of 6 million hectares of land and 24 billion tons of topsoil per year. This is a direct loss in soil that can be cultivated to produce food.
Industrialized food production has also lead to additional soil loss. Although food production initially increases with the use of industrial techniques, this practice is unsustainable and causes long term damage to soil. Heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers such as chemical phosphate and nitrate has contaminated the soil, diminished soil quality and weakened the land.
As a result, soil is being lost at 10 to 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Because soil is a complex mixture of eroded rock, mineral nutrients, decaying organic matter, water, air, and billions of living organisms, it cannot be easily recreated. In the last 50 years of using industrial farming techniques that use chemical fertilisers, 1/3 of once arable land is now unusable. Industrial agriculture also takes jobs away from small farmers which accounts for 79% of the employment in Namibia. The United Nations has declared that food security in Africa will only be increased by using organic agriculture (which does not use chemical fertilisers). According to the United Nations, “simply applying the ‘industrial’ agricultural models of the twentieth century into the twenty-first as a single, global solution will not serve us well.”
In Namibia, our Constitution calls on us to maintain a sustainable environment for current and future generations for a reason. Without the environment, including the dirt beneath our feet, we cannot live.