Stand an earthworm disgusts you o if the earth seems dirty to you, we would like to change your mind. Under your feet, in fact, there is a world of biodiversity to be protected: he reminded us again this year World soil daylast December 5th. Without that fertile layer that grows plants, we would find ourselves without 95 percent of global food.
The ground that slips under our feet
Last July, FAO sounded the alarm: 90 percent of land suitable for cultivation could disappear by 2050. Italy is not in good shape: the WWF recalled that we are losing two square meters of soil every second19 hectares per day in 2021, the highest value recorded in the last ten years. It happens because we asphalt and cement, but not only.
Soil is the living skin of the Earth, teeming with life. “There are thousands of bacteria and fungi in one gram of soil,” he says Cristina Menta, zoologist and professor at the Department of Chemical, Life and Environmental Sustainability Sciences at the University of Parma. “To them must be added many other forms of life. Among vertebrates, moles, badgers, rodents and other animals that find food or refuge in the soil.
All the underground actors
The real surprise are the invertebrates. “Earthworms and ants are soil engineers: by digging they ventilate the soil and shape it, and make sure that the water does not stagnate. Earthworms ingest organic matter and soil, thus helping the work of fungi and bacteria”. As in any living community, everyone’s goal is to eat and multiply: there are those who feed on organic “waste” (residues of plants, animals, etc.), decomposing them and cementing them with the mineral component of the soil, those predator and prey. As in a huge underground orchestra, everyone has their own score. Other “musicians” are beetles, mites, springtails, nematodes, crustaceans such as woodlice, mysterious beings such as proturi and sinphilis. Everyone’s work leads to healthy soil.
Plants and mushrooms in symbiosis
And then there are the plants. «The rhizosphere is the area of soil around the roots» continues Menta. «Through the latter, plants release substances into the soil, for example sugars, which feed the fungi and other microorganisms, which make mineral elements available to plants that are useful for their growth». The word “mushroom” must not mislead. “What we see on the surface is the fruiting body: in the ground the actual mushroom is made up of an enormous network of filaments, the hyphae”. They are the highway thanks to which a birch and a fir, for example, can cooperate by exchanging vital substancesas discovered by the scientist Suzanne Simard. According to some studies, plants are capable of creating a kind of external intestine by mobilizing specific bacteria. With sucrose, the young plants feed them exactly as we do with the guests of our intestines, creating a protective network against disease.
Nature creates, man destroys
“In addition to a rich living community, soil is composed of air, water, dead organic matter and mineral components,” adds Menta. «A fertile soil can be deep from a few tens of centimeters in the mountains to a few meters in the plains». This incredible habitat, when healthy, gives us important services. In addition to growing plants, it stores carbon, easing the carbon dioxide problem in the air, and retains and purifies water. “In some quarters nature takes thousands of years to create an inch of fertile soil, which man manages to destroy even in a very short timeMint points out. «It is a limited resource and not renewable in the short term».
Asphalt and climate change enemies of the soil
Fertile soil disappears not only under asphalt and concrete. Climate change contributes to soil erosion and desertification. Furthermore, intensive agriculture also contributes to a progressive impoverishment of the soil. “Let’s think of a wheat field: many companies would have serious harvest problems if they couldn’t eliminate weeds often using a herbicide,” comments Menta. In fact, alternative methods require more work and costs rise. But the herbicide damages the entire ecosystem. The plowing of the fields ends up bringing the underlying part to the surface, overturning the clods and decimating the living communities. The result? A soil less rich in biodiversity, less fertile and therefore more in need of chemical fertilizers.
Another phenomenon is desertification, which isn’t just in Africa. «Even in Italy, many areas run this risk. And this happens not only for climate change, but also for the way in which the soil is used» adds Menta. «Then there is salinizationand: in soils that are too rich in salts, plants struggle to grow». It happens in areas near the sea, but also inland, due to incorrect watering.
Agriculture must be sustainable
To feed a population of 8 billion people, one certainly cannot go back to archaic agriculture. However, work has been going on for some time towards a more sustainable management of the soils. Organic farming, agroecology, conservation agriculture are some of the possible approaches. Businesses are also driving change. Barilla, for example, since 2019 with the Mill card has launched a specification for the cultivation of soft wheat which it then purchases for its products. Those who adhere also undertake not to use the herbicide glyphosate and neonicotinoid insecticides, to allocate a small part of the land to cultivate flowers to favor pollinating insects and to practice crop rotation which preserves the soil. The Davines group, specialized in professional cosmetics, has launched the Eroc projecta European center for regenerative and organic agriculture, with the aim of becoming a research and training hub.
First rule: no plowing
The first steps in this direction were taken by Deafal Ong, pioneer in organic and regenerative agriculture (Aor) in our country. “We followed development cooperation projects around the world,” says Susanna Debenedetti, who coordinates the AOR area of Deafal. «In Latin America we discovered this approach by bringing the first trainers to Italy in 2010. Since then we have held 150 courses involving 4,000 people and assist over 200 Italian farms». The Aor method aims to regenerate the soil and also society, with respect for people and animals. «There is no technique that works everywhere: we study the terrain to understand how to act» adds Debenedetti. «We do not use pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. To regenerate the soil we use various methods, including agricultural waste to create fertilizers».
To avoid weeds, intercropping of plants is promoted: A cover crop is sown that prevents its growth. After harvesting, this plant is shredded and buried to increase fertility. «We promote the reproduction of native microorganisms. For us, water management is important, with systems that protect against soil loss and runoff when it is not absorbed. Animal management is also key. We design “rational grazing”: the herds remain compact and are moved to the plots frequently, according to a plan» concludes Debenedetti. Thus the turf and the soil are not destroyed.
Even the Aor is in favor of cultivation without ploughing, except when it is unavoidable; promotes the use of borders (“they also protect against a neighbor who uses herbicide”) which attract bees and insects antagonists of possible parasites. As for costs, Debenedetti is clear: both nature and the farmer gain. Changing the production model, obtaining healthier and more environmentally friendly food is not impossible. Many farmers are trying and the EU provides a 2023-2027 support package for those who won’t plow the soil, or will do it at a minimum. A positive sign.
Feed the world while protecting the Earth. The journalist Monbiot cites the virtuous examples of agriculture.
Many of the migrants who knock on Europe’s doors every day flee from countries where the climate crisis and erosion have caused the loss and degradation of fertile soil. Forecasts speak of 4 billion people who will be in these conditions in 2050. It is urgent to rethink our relationship with the planet and the soil is a key factor.
The English journalist and zoologist George Monbiot, an expert on environmental issues, has just published in Italian The future is underground (Mondadori, 22 euros), a fundamental text for understanding what is happening under our feet. It helps us to understand, among other things, how economic interests affect food production and how livestock and meat consumption affect the environment and the soil. But it also brings us virtuous examples, such as the story of the farmer Iain Tolhurst (Tolly): he has managed to work miracles on the land he cultivates. And when asked what you grow, he replies: «biodiversity». Including nettles, which feed the aphids, prey to ladybugs, which are devourers of crop parasites.
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