The previous sections spoke to the crises of climate, species extinction and this “new era of pandemics.” There is another worry as important, the damaged condition of the biodiversity beneath our feet, soil biodiversity, defined as:
The variety of life below ground, from genes and species to the communities they form,
as well as the ecological complexes to which they contribute and to which they belong, from the
micro- habitats to landscape, essential for most of the ecosystem services provided by soils.
More than 40% of living organisms in land-based ecosystems are associated during their life cycle directly with soils, including: unicellular, microscopic forms, invertebrates such as earthworms, nematodes, protozoa and insect larvae, arthropods and their larvae stages, springtails, mites, ants, termites to mammals, reptiles and amphibians that spend considerable parts of their lives below ground, as well as algae, fungi, mosses, lichens and plant roots. These components transform organic and inorganic compounds into accessible nutrients in an extraordinarily complex biochemical process critical for a variety of ecosystem services that we humans and other life form depend on.
This occupant of the subsurface world, magnified many times, will never be seen by the vast majority of the nearly 8 billion humans living of the planet, but we walk over them, in the many millions daily.
In human history, the planet Earth has provided a home for around 113 billion people. There are more microorganisms in a single cup of healthy soil than the number of all humans who have ever lived.
Plants absorb atmospheric carbon, but it’s the soil macro and micronutrients absorbed from the soil to create biomass and transfer nutrients and energy. As noted elsewhere on this website, this is the only known process to extract the legacy load of carbon from the atmosphere. Current carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are approaching 415 parts per million (415 ppm), with 350 ppm the safe level, meaning a variety natural climate solutions — such as the habitat restoration encouraged on this website — are necessary to draw down the excess 65 ppm and arrest the overheating of the planet caused by greenhouse gasses, mostly carbon.
Of course, this underground group of processes is critical to agriculture and most aspects of the food industry and inoculation of soil with natural subsurface organisms will play an important role in habitat restoration. But for our purposes on the Pitchfork Ranch, our priority is ecosystem restoration by way of manipulating the above ground world in order to stop erosion and improve the landscape and soil by capturing sediment in rain-based water flows, whether it’s sheet flows across the landscape, heavier flows in drainages or river-like flows in the Burro Ciénaga. Grade-control structures serve as our above-ground inoculant. At the same time, field studies have demonstrated that a soil biota inoculation method representing soil biodiversity is a powerful tool for the restoration of land ecosystems. Absent crops and so few cattle, inoculation efforts are not warranted for us, yet it is an important component for restoring soil worldwide.
As with the entire planet, human activities on the Pitchfork have degraded the soil: sheep and cattle overstocking, elimination of fire, agricultural recontouring for crops and now the human-caused overheated climate. Globally, major anthropogenic threats to soil biodiversity are many: deforestation, urbanization, loss of soil organic matter/carbon, agricultural intensification, soil compaction, surface sealing, soil acidification, nutrient imbalance, pollution, salinization sodification, wildfires, desertification, erosion and landslides have conspired to reduced soil productivity to the point where it is estimated soil’s productive use will expire in 60-years. Despite industrial meet and other products, that means a shortage of food.
Consolidated corporate agriculture is the dagger in the heart of soil health. One percent of the world’s farms operate 70 percent of crop fields, ranches and orchards. This concentration of ownership leads to increasing monoculture, accelerating the decline of soil quality, the pace of deforestation, overuse of water resources and increases in world temperature. These companies care about nothing but profit and misuse land by:
- tillage - causing the loss of soil fauna and disruption of the soil food web
- misuse of fertilizers - negative impact on soil microbial communities and fauna
- PH imbalance caused by lime increase - tropical rainforest soils are naturally acidic and deforestation causes large quantities of lime
- misuse of pesticides – inadequately override natural processes
- monocultures – single crop farming limit the presence of beneficial bacteria, fungi and insects and contribute to ecosystem degradation
Worldwide collaboration will be necessary to curb and soon eliminate current agricultural misuse of global land. While above-ground biodiversity is familiar to those involved in agriculture and thus relatively straightforward to manage under national and global laws and regulations, there is a shallow understanding of how to protect soil biodiversity. Protecting above-ground biodiversity is not sufficient to protect soil biodiversity. Above-ground and below-ground biodiversity are shaped by different environmental drivers that are not necessarily linked to one another. Although connected, above and below ground biodiversity requires tailored protection, conservation and restoration considerations because they are distinct. While these concerns may appear to be of little value to those of us pursuing habitat restoration on a limited scale, we are all suffering the destructive consequences of industrial agriculture. But still, locally, we can all help draw down, each of us just a little, of the legacy load of atmospheric carbon by developing a back yard sweet, wet spot, a Climate Garden similar to the WWII Victory Gardens or participate with restoration groups that rely on volunteers.
Soil biodiversity and habitat restoration are not outliers for those among what might have at one time have been thought of as an environmental fringe element. The United Nations has plunged into the fray with the “UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030).” Scientist warn that we only have a decade to turn around the human-caused planetary overheating threatening to end civilization as we know it. Soil biodiversity can serve as a nature-based solution to most of the problems facing humanity, not just the climate, species extinction and virus crises, but also food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty, disease, clean water and other stresses. As stated throughout this website, we all need to get our hands in the ground, dig into this subsurface world and help improve our soil – thereby helping solve the climate and species extinction crises as well as the myriad other stresses threatening life on the planet.
For further details and the best publication for public consumption of the complex topic of soil biodiversity, see: FAO, ITPS, GSBI, SCBD and EC. 2020. State of knowledge of Soil biodiversity – Status, challenges and potentialities, Summary for policy makers. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb1929en