If the soil dies, our civilization disappears
All over the world, albeit with the necessary differences and peculiarities, agricultural soils are undergoing unprecedented degradation, not only in qualitative terms (loss of fertility) but also in quantitative (loss of matrix) and dynamic (speed of the process). .
This phenomenon, also known in ancient civilizations, is progressing, however, today with an unprecedented speed and modality. Suffice it to say that, in Sicily alone, 74.7% of the soils are in an advanced state of desertification (between critical 1, 2 and 3).
The phenomenon is complex but underlying and in common there is the model of land exploitation both for agricultural purposes and for the occupation of the same for other purposes (urban planning, industrial, etc.).
However, what worries most of all is the relationship between the current agricultural model and the loss of soil resources; a model that is carried out with ecological processes very distant from the natural ones and which, therefore, creates a considerable interference on the regenerative capacities of agricultural systems (and collaterally of natural ones). We recall here that agricultural systems are dissipative systems * which, in order to maintain their production capacity in the long term, need a perfect balance between incoming and outgoing inputs.
Unfortunately, these are concepts that have been little or badly studied in agronomic sciences and less analyzed in agricultural policies in recent decades that have looked at the agri-food model as an inexhaustible linear system, in contravention of the most elementary laws of physics, thermodynamics and ecology.
The result is now extremely alarming because the loss of soil is only one of many factors: all connected to each other. Loss of biodiversity (natural and agricultural), deforestation, erosion of non-renewable resources (above all water and fertilizers), increase in production costs, and so on, are the effects of a cause as well known as little, if any, addressed in the its complexity.
Under accusation, of course, several factors, but there is one above all that then largely unites them.
In food production we have changed the biocoenoses, their equilibrium and their relationships. This new condition has led to a change in the relationship between some species (such as for example in insects or in non-cultivated plants) and to consequent proliferation of populations (which we define with the unscientific term of infestations). To remedy these infestations, various synthetic products are then used (pesticides, herbicides, etc.) aggravating the delicate ecosystem balance even more.
At the center of the responsibilities (although not the only one) there is obviously a model of food production which, as mentioned, is ancient, and which with its spread has considerably reduced planetary biodiversity but also food diversity if we consider that in the world today we feed on very few species and, often, with a low genetic variability within them.
This information also comes from a report released in 2019 by FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in the State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture; the report, based on data collected in 91 different countries, took stock of the diversity of plants, animals and other organisms (wild or domesticated) that provide humans with food, fiber and fuel.
The alarming fact is that, although about 6000 species of cultivable plants are known, those actually used in food production are about 200, and 66% of global agricultural production consists of only nine species (sugar cane, rice, corn, wheat, potato, soy, the fruit of the oil palm, sugar beet, cassava). It is no different for animal proteins: if the mainly farmed species are about forty, there are few on which we count for meat, milk and eggs.
To conclude, it is evident that the wrong ecological organization of most of the companies on the planet has caused a domino effect, which has caused a series of relapses and a vicious circle from which one cannot escape unless the system of production systems is re-established. more efficient (from a thermodynamic and energy efficiency point of view) such as that of Agroecology.
In Europe, the 2020 Farm to Work strategy indicated this path but it is necessary that in this matter the agendas of the various Governments allow laws, proposals and bills on Agroecological matters a privileged and preferential lane, in short, an urgent procedure , which allows the transposition and application of new rules and new visions in a short time.
Biodiversity, both globally and locally, represents that matrix that gives solidity and stability to life on Earth.
Ecosystems with a greater degree of diversity are able to face greater adversities and also acquire a greater capacity to dissipate the captured energy (which is largely solar), also helping to keep our planet “cooler”.
Biodiversity is therefore also the response of ecosystems in order to better transform the energy captured to make it available in different forms and moments for the so-called “ecosystem services”.
The premises made up to now serve, in a very concise way, to dispel any doubts on the matter, especially among those who still assert that there is no link between global warming (climate change is a more complex relationship) and the loss of biodiversity. Global warming also due to excessively entropic human activities which directly and indirectly affect planetary biodiversity.
Soil erosion obviously (and unfortunately) corresponds to the loss of biodiversity, with unequivocal data (if ever it were needed) that we receive from a research conducted by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which lasted 5 years, which has mapped almost 60,000 species of plants around the world.
From this research, reported in the State of World’s Trees report, an alarming picture emerges on biodiversity.
The study, carried out in the open field, accurately surveyed 58,497 plant species.
According to the State of World’s Trees, curated by Botanic Gardens Conservation International, there is a picture with the contours of a global emergency that requires immediate action. Nearly a third of existing tree species are at risk of extinction. In all, there are 17,510, practically double the number of endangered species: mammals, birds, reptiles, etc., combined. As someone called it: a caporetto of biodiversity.
What is even more worrying is that the toll could also be heavier. According to the authors of the report, an additional 7.1% of plants could be at risk, while in one case out of 5 the data collected is not sufficient to decide the conservation status. Again according to the report, only 41.5% (less than half) of the plant species surveyed are safe (for the moment).
The research carried out by the authors then delved into not only the numerical data but also the causes.
The greatest interference of the loss of biodiversity heritage comes (for a change) from agriculture which, with its model, applied especially after the 1950s, continually subtracts land to often plant monocultures. The second factor in order of importance is deforestation, followed by livestock. Of all the causes, climate change is only ninth on the list but, as mentioned, this is more effect than cause.
Furthermore, the data of this important and complex study tell us that the loss of biodiversity is spread over all continents.
However, the alarm comes from the consideration that some of the most important biodiversity reservoirs are in the most worrying conditions of degradation. Above all, Brazil: of the 8,847 plant species surveyed, 1,788 are those at risk: 20%. Worse, in proportion, are only Indonesia and Malaysia (where, however, the species present are almost half of those of the Latin American country), respectively with 23 and 24% of the species threatened. Tropical islands also pay a disproportionately high price.
The study then concludes its analyzes with merit assessments, stating that there is a well-founded fear that the extinction of some key species could trigger a chain process, a domino effect, capable of causing entire ecosystems to collapse.
Among other things, it is not always easy to identify what consequences derive from the loss of a species. Indeed, predictions in such complex and non-linear systems are almost impossible.
Finally, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International identifies possible solutions.
These range from the need to expand protected areas in order to safeguard as many species as possible, to keeping the most endangered species in botanical gardens or seed banks, and securing more funds for global conservation efforts.
But the central focus of the question is that we must suddenly change (there is no more time for ifs and buts) the agri-food model.
The expansion of the intensive agricultural model is, in fact, the main driver of deforestation and the consequent loss of agricultural and forest biodiversity. Furthermore, the agricultural specialization system produces highly concentrated commercial systems in large structures.
Returning therefore to the loss of soil and its fertility which, as we have seen, is part of a more complex problem, the question is not only ecological but, in a related, technical and political way. Soil degradation endangers the health, livelihoods and safety of countless people.
In fact, soil degradation (to be analyzed as mentioned together with other ecological phenomena) is occurring at an alarming rate, contributing to a dramatic decline in the productivity of cultivated land and pastures around the world.
In this sense, the UNCCD uses a combined system of three sub-indicators to evaluate this loss: soil cover and its changes over time, soil productivity, organic carbon content (Soil Organic Carbon, SOC), suggesting however the possibility of integrating other specific sub-indicators at a single country level.
All these indicators and the processing of these data lead to a single conclusion:
– the main factors of this decline are to be found in particular in the intensive farming practices that man has persistently perpetuated on the land in recent decades, including the indiscriminate use of increasingly heavier agricultural machinery, which compact the earth by inhibiting the activity of microorganisms. This is combined with deforestation and the use of fertilizers, which have made the soil increasingly inert, vulnerable and subject to erosion, which in some areas exceeds ten tons per hectare per year.
– the negative effects of this degradation also extend to crops. Today, in fact, we are witnessing the impoverishment of the nutritional properties of the foods we eat, since the latter are closely related to the quality of the cultivation soil.
The solution to all this, like it or not, is to rapidly implement (with the obvious times of political, administrative, workforce and organizational changes activation) the dissipative agricultural system, from linear to circular; from intensive agriculture (which contrary to what is said is the one that has the lowest primary productivity **) to agroecological agriculture (which is the one with the highest energy efficiency and therefore with the highest primary productivity).
It is precisely to cope with this scenario that agriculture must become capable of regenerating the fertility of agricultural lands.
To do this it is necessary to completely change the production systems, the use of external inputs, the system of associations, the relationship with heterotrophs (different zootechnical model), the connection and the distances between production and consumption, today’s commercial scenarios and their criteria. market, the entire system of agricultural policies and therefore of the CAP.
Above all, it is necessary to invest in a new awareness and knowledge of farmers and technicians, strongly anchored to an old economic and production model that denies the very essence of the laws of physics and therefore of ecology and economics, and with them, of Life.
We also clarify that it is a long path, in which we will encounter great resistance and criticism because the most difficult thing humanity can do is to assimilate such complex changes in a short time but there is no other way.
* By dissipative system we mean a thermodynamically open system that works in a state far from thermodynamic equilibrium, exchanging energy, matter and / or entropy with the environment. Dissipative systems are characterized by the spontaneous formation of anisotropy, that is, of ordered and complex structures, sometimes chaotic. These systems, when crossed by increasing flows of energy, matter and information, can also evolve and, passing through phases of instability, increase the complexity of their structure (or order) by decreasing their entropy (neghentropy).
This term was coined by the Nobel Prize for Chemistry Ilya Prigogine in the late 1960s. Prigogine’s merit was that of drawing the attention of scientists towards the link between order and the dissipation of entropy, moving away from the static and equilibrium situations, generally studied up to then, and contributing in a fundamental way to the birth of what today is it is called the epistemology of complexity which is the basis of the study of ecology.
** The primary productivity of an ecosystem is defined as the rate at which solar energy is transformed by chlorophyll photosynthesis into organic matter.
It is defined:
– gross primary productivity (PPL), the total speed of photosynthesis (therefore also called total photosynthesis);
– net primary productivity (PPN), the storage rate of the organic matter produced, net of that used by the plant to live;
– net community productivity (PNC) is the storage rate of organic matter not used by herbivorous and carnivorous animals;
– secondary productivity (PS) is the rate of storage of organic matter for energy purposes by consumers (ie heterotrophic organisms, unable to carry out photosynthesis).