Soil is Wealth
Originally published here in Capital at Play in May 2018.
The dictionary definition of wealth is “an abundance of valuable possessions or money,” or “the state of being rich; material prosperity.”
In many modern cultures including ours, we equate wealth with the ability to buy the good life. And what is the good life? While the answer varies from person to person, some basic common denominators include happiness, health, safety, adventure, choices. While external objects can add to happiness, internally, it can best be described as a feeling of contentment or wellbeing.
And does money buy happiness? According to a recent study, money does buy happiness up to about $75,000 a year in income. Over this amount, extra material wealth makes no difference in happiness. Studies show that at that point, happiness is based on attitude and circumstances, rather than money.
To throw the whole definition of wealth, happiness, and well being into question, there’s another way to look at things. David Korten, author of author of When Corporations Rule the World and Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, says that “Real wealth has intrinsic value. Examples include fertile land, healthful food, knowledge, productive labor, pure water and clean air, labor, and physical infrastructure. The most important forms of real wealth are beyond price and are unavailable for market purchase. These include healthy, happy children, loving families, caring communities, a beautiful, healthy, natural environment.”
As soil scientists and soil philosophers are teaching us (and have been teaching us for generations), soil is life. They argue that the quality of the soil determines the quality of our health and by extension the health of our communities. Soil is an example of “living capital” a resource that replenishes, gives back, makes us healthy, nourishes our loved ones, and allows for a future. It takes care of us if we take care of it.
Ever since Europeans colonized the America’s, they’ve been generating wealth from the extraction of natural resources, most especially from the soil. After 500+ years, we’re beginning to see the consequences due to depletion of nutrients, runoff, and toxicity. In fact soil scientists are warning that the depletion is worse than we thought and in order to assure global food security we need to start repairing the damage.
According to a 2015 report, the economics of land degradation is no small thing. In fact, globally, it amounts to USD $10.6 trillion every year. “This includes not only the cost from lost agricultural production and diminished livelihoods, but also from the lost value of ecosystem services such as water filtration, erosion prevention, nutrient cycling and the provision of clean air.”
Additionally, according to the Global Opportunity Network, “approximately 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is degraded.” The practices that lead to soil depletion are all practiced in an industrial model of agriculture and include:
- Planting and harvesting for generations without replenishing.
- Monocropping, because a lack of bio-diversity causes damage.
- Use and overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which kill off the rich and varied bacterial biome of our soil.
- Deforestation, leaving the land bare and eroded.
- Inappropriate use of livestock and overgrazing.
Because of these unsustainable methods, the soil has been losing it’s vitality and essential structure. And yet, more than 99.7 percent of human calories come from the land and than 0.3 percent comes from the oceans. In the face of population increases the world over, this makes for a dire equation. If food production is increases on depleted soils, we will get less food out of more acreage.
Soil is our inheritance. Each generation passes on what it’s created to the next generation, which then determines whether that generation will thrive or struggle. What does our inheritance look like now that the soil is tired, used, depleted, and less dynamic than ever?
At Organic Growers School (OGS), we believe we have the power to turn this around. In fact we can learn from the long histories of indigenous and traditional cultures, who have tended and cared for the natural world as a top priority; knowing that their health and the health of the land was deeply intertwined. Our community of organic growers are ever learning and teaching others how to build soil in every way possible. Specifically through turning their lawns into gardens, building compost and organic matter, implementing no-till methods and cover cropping systems, and learning about biological farming practices.
The goals of OGS are clear.
- We want more farmers on the land using organic practices and a system in which family farms can flourish.
- We want a garden, orchard, and chickens in every yard. And we want the average person including low-wealth folks to populate their daily lives with home-grown food.
- We want healthy, informed, and engaged consumers who are choosing local and organic food.
- We want a democratic, equitable, and resilient food system that encourages participation and leadership by low-wealth people and people of color at every phase of the food life cycle.
In short, we want to reclaim agriculture.
At this juncture in history, we have an opportunity to focus on well being writ large by tending to the soil. According to the 2013 UN Conference on Trade and Development report entitled Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate, “Farming in rich and poor nations alike should shift from monoculture towards greater varieties of crops, reduced use of fertilizers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers, and more locally focused production and consumption of food, a new UNCTAD report recommends.”
Small-scale, regionally-focused, organically based agriculture holds the promise for our failing food systems. And here’s why: Small-scale farmers are more likely to be sustainability-minded and organically focused. Their food comes from their own land and they care about their health and the health of the communities they serve. There are less degrees of separation from them and the web of life. As our communities support the farmers to build soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, and focus on ecosystem health, this in turn keeps farmers on the land, increases their use of regenerative practices that create resilient and adaptable farms in our region.
The reason so many people are drawn to our western NC region is, in part, due to our focus on real food. There’s no doubt that building of soil through the success of small-scale and organic farmers helps our entire region thrive through increasing the real stewardship of our soil, water, and forest resources.
And here’s a wealth tip. The next time you think about increasing personal wealth, invest in the soil builders!