Thursday, September 26, 2013

Swords into plowshares? What is the dirty truth?

Swords into plowshares! What a beautiful thought, eh? Until we realize that the plowshares – that is, agriculture – created war. Sure, hunter-gatherer folk fought skirmishes and raided each other's territory for wives and such. But war as we have come to know it, requiring armies engaged in extended combat over large expanses and long periods of time, wasn't possible until agriculture created the surplus of food that fed the troops. 

Then we hear from Wes Jackson that over the whole 10,000 years or so, the plowshare has done more damage than the sword. Actually, conventional agriculture has a lot in common with war. It is an attack on the earth, a massacre, cutting down and uprooting trees and then turning the soil to smother unwanted plants. Weeds, we call them. Often, quite edible and nutritious plants that fed the hunter-gatherers. 

Here, I have to mention the weed that out-GMO'd Monsanto. Palmer amaranth, usually called pigweed by farmers, is one of those wild edibles that fed native Americans (and pioneer folk), but was a number one weed enemy of the farmers and the prime target of Roundup herbicide. But now pigweed has done its own genetic engineering and is immune to Roundup!

Back to just the dirty truth – what's the big problem with plowing? Answer: it causes a loss of organic matter. Carbon, that is. And it is that carbon that supports the microflora and microfauna that make soil fertile. 

Even though the names are almost identical, it may seem odd to think of soil and oil as kinfolk. Well, in their respective native habitats, each is – perhaps I should say was – essentially a vast store of energy. Carbon, that is. 

Soil, along with the trees, was just the first of Earth's carbon treasures we humans mistook for not just vast but inexhaustible "natural resources" available to satisfy our every wish, however wise or foolish.

In future posts I will talk more about the case of the fossil fuels; for now, I will just say we are definitely up against those "Limits to Growth" we poo-poohed in the Seventies.

As for the soil? I'm lazy, so all I'm offering is a passage from a recent Time article that popped up close to the top of my quick Google. I can assure you, however, that it matches well with other information I have seen from scientific sources over the last few years. Here's the sad news: 

A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded – the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Even the well-maintained farming land in Europe, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates. 

BTW, the "swords into plowshares" statue is at the United Nations headquarters in New York. 

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