The Secret Life of Soil with Dr. Matthew Jebb of the National Botanic Gardens – People4Soil Campaign

Published by David Hayden on

January 23, 2017

Soil is the secret of life on land, it’s history began hundreds of millions of years ago and because of the scale of its timeline it’s not renewable. Without soil there is no agriculture and without agriculture we would lose 95% of our food production. Soil is every bit as fundamental to sustaining life on this planet as air & water. Yet unlike air & water which are already protected by European directives we don’t yet protect soil from pollution, compaction, erosion and various unsustainable farming practices in a systematic way. Most of us don’t think about soil very much, those of us living in cities might not even see it much, yet we all depend on it.

Dr. Matthew Jebb the director of the National Botanic Gardens gave a talk about the relationship between soil and the plant at the launch of the People4Soil day. In his talk, he delivered some astounding information about the origins & role of soil, drawing from Charles Darwin’s book : The formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms originally published in 1881. Human beings live on 95% agricultural produce. This isn’t a big surprise, however, soil as an ecosystem in itself might be an idea that puzzles some. It’s an extraordinarily important ecosystem that needs to be conserved as once it’s destroyed there’s no way to replace it.

[x_blockquote cite=”” type=”left”]Over the last half a century Ireland’s soils have come under increasing pressure from land-use changes, intensification of agriculture, erosion and overgrazing, disposal of organic wastes to soils, afforestation, industry and urbanization. Soils are NOT a renewable resource so when we lose them they are gone.[/x_blockquote]

The discovery that fascinated Charles Darwin about soil was the tremendous importance the earthworm played in maintaining healthy soil. Earthworms do an astounding amount of work in soil, in fact, in any give year earthworms will turn over 8lbs of soil per square yard or 20 tonnes per acre of soil. In an acre of topsoil there are between 250,000 and 1 million worms inhabitanting the area. To put this into perspective this means that in an acre of grassland for cattle the total weight of worms would equal that of the cattle and yet when we picture countryside pastures we probably don’t think about soil or its inhabitants like worms. Darwin was fascinated by the activity of earthworms and even performed experiments to measure the rate at which chalk would become buried in soil due to the work of earthworms. If Darwin had been aware of microbes his fascination with soil would have undoubtedly animated him even further.  Nonetheless, soil and the earthworms that maintain it are fundamental to agriculture. Dr. Jebb observed that most people still think in terms of animal, mineral and vegetable categories and most would consider life as belonging to the animal realm, however one acre of land contains two tonnes of bacteria in it’s topsoil, and plants too are very much alive. Now that we understand the very complex ecosystem that is at work in healthy soil and how precious a resource it is, we really ought to go about a large scale conservation effort to protect it.

After all, soil is what made the land on the earth inhabitable in the first place. In fact, 250 – 300 million years ago the very first tiny plants were moving out of the oceans and up until that moment there was no soil on the earth. Soil was built from plants. It’s a precious resource which supports all of the photosynthetic process on land. Dr. Jebb described photosynthesis as an amazing trick that allows us to harvest energy from a fusion reactor which exists 18 million miles away known as the sun. Soil is the vital go-between between the sun and all the food that we can grow off the soil. It is not dirt, muck or useless matter to be taken for granted.

Dr. Jebb also cited Scottish Biologist Patrick Geddes who coined the phrase “Act locally, think globally”. This is the basic concept of the Green Movement. We cannot afford to continuously plunder our non-renewable resources and expect that nothing will change. We need to take an ecological approach to our soils and protect them from further damage. We need to heed Geddes and act locally with a global vision.

The good news for amateur growers is that if we compost suitable food refuse then our friendly earthworms will do a lot of the work for us in making our garden soil richer. However, you can still influence large-scale conservation efforts by signing the European Citizens initiative below.

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David Hayden

David is a contributor to the Green News. He has a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and French from UCD as well as a Master's Degrees in French literature and New Media from the University of California at San Diego and the Johns Hopkins University.