Topsoil, and Why You Really Ought to Care About It

Dirt isn’t something a lot of people think about, which is unfortunate, because dirt is actually very neat, and also very important. I happen to live in a spot with good dirt. When I’m digging in the garden, I turn up spadefuls of rich, black, crumbly soil crawling with earthworms. It smells delicious and breaks up in a lovely way in my hand. It’s delicious dirt. One of the reasons it’s good is because there’s healthy vegetative cover to keep it in place and to keep adding nutrients, to ensure that it slowly builds up over time and furnishes the ideal environment for all my happy little plants. But good dirt is an increasingly difficult thing to find.

Making dirt takes a long time. Weathering of rock formations, breakdown of organic materials, these things take a while, and lots of activities quickly deplete soil reserves. Not just farming, which strips nutrients from the soil (and returns some of them, depending on farming practices). Grazing, logging, mining, all activities that strip vegetation, expose topsoil, and leave it vulnerable to runoff. Heavy logging operations here mean that every time it rains, the rivers turn into mud soup, and plumes of brown stream out into the Pacific Ocean. That’s all topsoil being lost, topsoil that filters to the bottom of the ocean and sits there, not really doing the earth any good.

Topsoil loss is accelerating at an alarming rate, and not many people other than soil scientists are talking about it. In part, it’s because a lot of the conversations about topsoil loss are uncomfortable ones to have. It’s not just that human activities are a major contributor, but that many of these activities are not things that can be tidily solved. One of the major problems is that as the human population grows, pressure on topsoil increases because we need more land for agriculture. There’s less of an opportunity to rest the soil, leading to soil depletion, erosion, and loss, which reduces arable land, which puts more pressure on remaining land.

The obvious solution is to rest the soil more, to get humans off the land and give it a chance to recover. But that’s not a solution, because humans still need to live and eat. This sets up an environmental dilemma that is not easily solvable. We cannot just throw money and technology at it, although improving farming techniques will probably decrease topsoil loss. For example, developing farming towers to use for food production could relieve stress on surrounding land, but that requires infrastructure, which many nations do not have and cannot easily acquire, which is why so many people are subsistence farming and relying heavily on the land for support.

Talking about topsoil loss requires talking about issues like class, colonialism, disparities between different regions created politically, not environmentally and accidentally. It requires discussions about the historical export of particularly harmful farming techniques, the creation of traps to force people to use these techniques, and the inevitable consequences. Now, these same techniques are being criticised and the West, once again, wants to ride in on a white horse to ‘teach the natives’ how to farm (in some cases, reusing ancient farming techniques without even crediting their origins, like Westerners just invented things that people were practicing, happily and effectively, before they were forced to use Western agricultural practices as part of the terms of ‘development’ loans and other ‘assistance’ from the West).

Soil erosion creates a chain effect in the natural environment. Topsoil loss doesn’t just mean less ability to farm. It reduces vegetation, impacts biodiversity, clean air (plants are fantastic filters), animal habitats. Increases dust in the air, leading to the spread of respiratory disease, to problems with plants that don’t like having their pores clogged with dust. Topsoil in the ocean causes nutrient pollution and leads to fish kills, just as suspended sediment in the water chokes out oxygen and light, limiting habitat for aquatic organisms, some of which are not just economically useful but also biologically so, like microorganisms that photosynthesize and turn all that carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Dirt doesn’t seem like a very exciting topic to many people, and it gets short shrift in a lot of environmental discussions, which is a pity, because it really is the foundation of so many important things. So many environmental issues can be traced back to dirt. What kind of dirt it is, how thick the deposits are, what’s in the dirt, what isn’t in the dirt. Dirt is key, and the greatly increasing rate of topsoil loss worldwide should be a cause for concern for everyone, because it is not going to stop, and the problem will not go away if we don’t talk about it.

Combating topsoil loss requires discussing not just the development of new technology to meet our needs, but also larger conversations about climate colonialism, environmental racism, the harmful impacts of foreign policies advocated for by nations like the United States. It requires a deeper discussion about how to effectively address environmental issues without harming communities, without assuming that some communities have nothing to offer while others can lead the way to some sort of magical environmental fix.

Talking about dirt, in other words, requires getting messy and dirty. And it requires looking at the links of a larger chain; reframing the way we think about topsoil loss could have a profound impact on environmental policy and how we approach environmental issues, and that is frightening to a lot of people.