Want to know something funny? Clean living relies on dirt. That’s because soil is one of the most important parts of a thriving natural world. As a home for plants, animals, and fungi, it serves as the building block for literally all life on earth—and also helps with carbon storage, decomposition, and land preservation. But with rising pollution, deforestation, over-farming, and extreme weather, soil health is currently compromised—and there are things you can do to help the earth stay grounded. (Sorry! 😖) So let’s dig in. (SO sorry! 😖😖)
WHAT IS HEALTHY SOIL?
When we talk about “healthy soil,” we mean dirt that lets living things—plants, fungi, insects, algae, all that good stuff!—grow to their fullest potential. Healthy soil is power-packed with “organic matter,” which includes bacteria and fungi that help soil retain water, vitamins, minerals, and even natural antibiotics. The more “organic matter” that soil holds, the healthier it is.
WHAT DOES HEALTHY SOIL ACTUALLY DO?
According to the USDA, soil fulfills five essential functions for the earth and all its inhabitants (including us).
Soil is a traffic cop for water
Soil regulates water flow to prevent flooding and erosion.
Soil is a luxury condo for organisms
Soil homes and feeds billions of living things, including plants, fungi, animals, and algae.
Soil is a Jedi against pollution
Soil uses its force to filter, buffer, and even degrade small amounts of toxins and heavy metals, preventing them from harming organisms on land and water.
Soil is the UPS of nutrients
All day long, soil “ships” the building blocks of life—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and more—from decomposed matter back to plants and animals, enabling one of the most important natural cycles in the world.
Soil is ground zero for life
Soil physically anchors plants and fungi, along with plant and animal habitats and human buildings. Soil is literally what keeps our world stable.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT SOIL HEALTH?
We know soil health and human health are connected in part because of The Rodale Institute, a non-profit research foundation that’s leading the way in sustainable agriculture. Through Rodale’s partnership with Wild Elements, we’re learning more about the connection between soil and people than ever before thanks to leaders like Dr. Gladis Zinati, who’s helming the Vegetable Systems Trial. Basically, she’s measuring the nutritional value of organic veggies with the same vitamin and mineral content found in veggies grown on a mass scale.
According to Rodale, “the nutrient density of fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. has declined in the past 50-70 years,” leading to “hidden hunger”—people getting enough calories but “not the vital nutrients necessary for health.” Dr. Zinati’s team is also measuring the health of the soil when organic produce and non-organic produce are grown in adjoining plots of land. (Spoiler alert: In past Rodale Institute studies, organic fruits and organic vegetables increase the health of the soil where they’re grown.)
HOW IS SOIL HEALTH DOING RIGHT NOW?
Not great. According to a 2018 study, about 75% of the earth’s soil is substantially degraded. That’s due to overplanting, deforestation, pollution, and extreme weather like droughts and floods (which are caused by—all together now—overplanting, deforestation, and pollution). But as the world population grows, we need more healthy soil to ensure every living thing has the nourishment it needs to thrive.
HOW CAN WE HELP PROTECT SOIL HEALTH?
Thank you for asking! Here are some small steps you can take to help keep soil safe.
Shop for organic produce when possible
Rodale Institute studies dating all the way back to the ‘80s show that when farms use sustainable harvesting techniques, the health of the soil improves. Now, Rodale is helping farmers transition their fields into organic soil—a process that takes about three years. Buying and eating organic fruits and vegetables won’t just help you stay healthy; it’ll help the earth stay healthy, too.
Nix pesticides on your lawn or garden
If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, front yard, or garden, be mindful of your own soil. There are plenty of cheap and non-toxic ways to keep unwanted bugs and animals out of your lilac bushes or tomato vines, including mosquito nets, eucalyptus oil, and even a simple salt spray.
- Cut down on plastic use
A recent German study found that 33% of microplastics end up in our soil and groundwater, which is really bad! We can help stop the influx of microplastics by taking small steps like using reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones, asking our favorite takeout spots to stop giving us plastic utensils, and bringing our own mugs to cafes. (Many will even give you a discount on your coffee if you do!)
Farmers call compost “black gold” because it’s so beneficial to soil health. You can help put your food scraps back into the land by composting daily in your backyard, or weekly through a local farmer’s market or city parks organization. Check out NPR’s guide for beginners, or Google “composting near me” to see what’s available in your area.
Of course, regulating plastics and ending legal pollution must happen at the legislative level. So we can also VOTE for politicians who support plastic bans at major corporations, increase pollution fines for corporations adding toxins into our land, and hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their damage. We can also participate in local politics to ensure public parks cultivate their land responsibly and sustainably.
IS THERE A TLDR VERSION?
Okay, so… healthy soil keeps us all alive and it makes our food taste better and do better work in our bodies. We need to protect it by supporting organic farmers, using natural products in our own gardens, and stemming our addiction to plastic water bottles. We can learn even more through our friends at the Rodale Institute, because they love talking dirty even more than we do.