Soil degradation is defined as a change in the soil health status resulting in a diminished capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services for its beneficiaries. Degraded soils have a health status such, that they do not provide the normal goods and services of the particular soil in its ecosystem.Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
No wonder you have never heard of soil degradation.
How the Food and Agriculture Organisation describes the concept is as impenetrable as a dry chernozem, replete with dull jargon and weak science. Since when can dirt have “soil health status” or sentient status sufficient to have beneficiaries. It makes soil sound like a shop or an accounting firm when it is actually a mixture of minerals, water and biology.
How about this definition?
Soil degradation has happened when soil grows less food less often.
I admit this simplification does not hint at the why of the outcome; something about soil being unwell, but I am sure you paid a little more attention to a focused definition. And you should. When soils grow less food less often it represents a risk to the wellbeing of us all.
Fortunately, this definition also allows the positive mirror
Soil degradation is reversed when soil grows more food more often.
So if you are of the positive thinking set there is a version for you where the graph goes from bottom left to top right.
Less facetiously, this definition is closer to the practical reality: humans use soil for their benefit. Natural vegetation converted into productions systems that capture solar energy into food, our own specific source of energy, is still the most efficient and cost-effective (or profitable if you prefer) method to feed people on mass. In these systems soil is the growth medium of choice.
Soil is still the cheapest, most ubiquitous and (usually) the most resilient option to grow food at a profitable volume. In short, we use it for profit.
Soil is gold, bitcoin even.
When soil degradation is defined as a loss in that use value it is logical at least. It fits with our notions of value – philosophical antagonism over human values applied to nature notwithstanding. ‘Health status’ is just silly but at least the FAO got the goods and services bit right.
Let’s run with the economics for a while.
If I make money from soil because I use it to grow food that is sold in a market, then my business needs the soil to continue to provide conditions for commodity production for as long as I need to run the business. This is as true for a subsistence farmer taking some excess melons to his village square as it is to a 5,000 ha precision agriculture operation in the Australian wheat belt. At first glance, soil degradation is not good for either business.
What if there is a time horizon on the business?
The subsistence farmer would rather have a job that pays more than tilling his field and hopes his children will break out of the hand to mouth cycle of his own life. Sales of the melons help buy his kids school uniforms.
Intensive agriculture must make money to satisfy creditors and benefit investors. Modern farms require immediate and increasingly significant capital and liquidity to function. Creditor terms run to months at best and investors are expecting annual dividends. Whilst the banks are happy to help with lumpy cash flow and insurance taken out against more acute disruption from acts of god and the market, even in a financially planned farm business, money goes in and out all the time.
All this means that the time horizons are short when it comes to growing food. So whilst I might want to grow melons for generations and wheat far into the future there are concerns right now. Production has to happen soon. It might be desirable for the business to be sustainable, that is to continue for as far into the future as we can realistically imagine, but cash is king and cash is immediate.
More food more often fits this model of course and ‘less food less often’ does not, so the last thing I need is soil degradation…. but the first thing I need is production. And this takes precedence whether it means food for a family or interest payments on the loan for the centre pivot. Farmer sustainability has a short time span, way shorter than the farm business and the soil that supports it.
This is the true problem with the “goods and services for its beneficiaries” definition of soil degradation. It will sneak up on you before you even know it is a problem. The average couch potato is functional but unhealthy and is fine with it. He would be less fine if you cut his Netflix allowance by half and restricted viewing to three nights a week (less food less often).
So now you have heard of soil degradation at least. It is a problem sneaking up on us all with ‘diminished capacity’ about to make all our lives more difficult.
There is something you can do.
Soil degradation is usually reversible through prudent production, encouragement of soil carbon, allowing soil biology to flourish and taking the long view.
And you can help with this by gearing yourself up to pay more than $1 per kilo for your onions.