Dirt!

I watched the film Dirt! last week. Many of us don’t really consider dirt, and when we do, we look down upon it. We don’t like it when we are “dirty” or when other people treat us like “dirt”. Dirt is the lowest of the low.

But in reality, there is nothing more important that dirt, as it is the cradle of life here on Earth. We need high quality dirt, or soil, to grow food. Without any dirt, we could not grow any food, and without any food … well you get the picture.

Many of us think that dirt is limitless. This is not true. Not all areas of the Earth have dirt, and some areas that have it, only have a few inches. This dirt took a long, long time to develop. Once it is gone, it will take a long, long time to develop more. Poor countries that don’t have dirt, or have lost their dirt, do not have an effective way to feed their people. So they go hungry, or migrate to areas where there is dirt. These migrations can cause conflicts among those who do not want to give up their dirt to newcomers. Countries that have dirt, even poorer countries, have a way to feed themselves and enjoy much higher food security.

Here in the West, we are paving over a lot of our dirt. Cities continue to sprawl, roads continue to be built, and less and less land is available for farming. But here we don’t notice the impact that this has on our food supply; it does not impact where our next meal is coming from. We just go and buy our food at the grocery store, much of it imported from other countries.

But wait a minute. We know that we are using almost all the arable land on this planet to grow food. Is the land attributed to feeding us, land that is way off in other countries, poor countries even, now not available to feed the local people that live there? Does our requirement for the next mall, the next suburban development, trump another country’s ability to feed its people?

Map of world percentage arable land.

% of Arable Land by Country - Image via Wikipedia

  So given how important dirt is – how are we treating it? Not very well I am afraid. A lot of our dirt has been lost due to conventional farming practices. When a farmer tills a dry field on a windy day, a lot of the dirt is taken up by the wind, blown into the sky, never to return. Dirt is also lost due to irresponsible irrigation practices that allow dirt to wash away into our streams and lakes and oceans, never to be used again. When we tear down a forest on a mountain, the dirt that remains can very quickly be washed away, without the network of trees and roots and plants to sustain it. On top of all of that, much of the dirt that we do have remaining is subjected to a host of chemical additives, such as fertilizer and pesticides. Unfortunately, nitrogen in fertilizer isn’t even completely absorbed by the plants – up to 70% of it gets carried away to lakes and oceans, creating algae blooms and reducing the oxygen content in the water. Fish stocks decline, aquatic life suffers. This is what has directly caused the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is estimated now to be the size of New Jersey.

We also add pesticides of course, as we don’t want those pesky pests eating up our crops. But pesticides kill more than just the pests; they also kill beneficial bugs and organisms that provide some of the life giving properties of the soil.

On top of all this, we plant vast mono-cultures of single crops. This ensures that the same nutrients are continuously drained from the soil, decreasing its health. Mono-cultures also invite more and more pests, as they provide a limitless feeding ground. So, we add more and more pesticides.

The result? We now have less dirt. We have dirt that is not nearly as healthy as it was 2 generations ago. We are using almost all of the arable land on Earth, yet continue to sprawl our cities, growing out instead of up. We buy food from a world away, perhaps impacting the food security of the local people of that country. We don’t know where our food comes from, and we don’t know about the importance of dirt

We are treating dirt, well – like “dirt”.

Alternatively, organic farming cherishes the dirt. It is all about dirt! Everything begins and ends with the quality of the dirt. Dirt that has been farmed organically has much more life within it, holds much more water, and releases its nutrients much more slowly – just how the plants like it. Organic dirt also holds much more carbon. If we all farmed organically, just think of the carbon sink we could create! Organic farming could contribute to reducing the carbon from the sky, which we so desperately need right now.

As for managing pests, that can be done organically as well. Instead of applying chemicals, there are several other natural alternatives:

  1. Grow strong, healthy plants in strong, healthy dirt, so that they are more able to naturally defend off pests
  2. Plant companion plants that deter pests (like marigolds and onions around your vegetable patch)
  3. Rotate plants every season to mix it up and confuse pests
  4. Introduce pest predators, such as ladybugs, into the mix
  5. Watch over and care for your plants, noticing early when there is a pest problem, so that action can be taken

So the next time you see a pile of dirt, do not scoff. Be happy and thankful for it!

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12 thoughts on “Dirt!

  1. Another film I still haven’t seen! Thanks for the review.

    We’re paving over our dirt here in the East (Centre?), too. I’m assuming the documentary is American, so they probably didn’t cover the fact that Southern Ontario contains the most Class 1 soil in all of Canada – soil that can grow anything the climate will allow – and it’s forever lost to urban sprawl. I once saw an aerial view of a new subdivision in Markham (a big suburb northeast of Toronto) with cookie-cutter houses aligned perfectly to a standard grid of streets. Just beyond the houses was farmland, and the developers had paved a street leading right up to it, because they know it’s only a matter of time before they can buy up that land, too, and build more houses. Sad.

    • We think the land is limitless here in Canada, with all the wide open spaces. But it is not true. Here in Alberta, the best dirt in the province happens to lay right in the path of the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, which is the area that is most developed, and will continue to be developed and paved over. Sad. Food security just has to become an issue for people, this land is what is going to sustain us in the future!

  2. I love that documentary! It is one of my favorites! You know it makes me so sad thinking about how we paved over the whole Earth [dirt is the name of our planet!] with cement and asphalt. I want to just break through it all and let the earth breathe! All the concrete contributes to pollution, as rainwater carries toxins with it, and has essentially nowhere to go, so we pipe it to the bay. If there were no cement, rainwater could be absorbed by the soil.

    As a culture we’ve become so disconnected from nature, we can’t see dirt for what it is – an entire ecosystem of micro-organisms that give organic soil its natural fertility, which gives us food to eat. Thanks so much for your review!

    • I loved the part in the movie when they were pulling up an asphalt play yard at a school, letting nature come back in, allowing the children to connect and grow plants. How inspiring is a block of pavement?

      And yes you are right – there is a reason our planet is named Earth!

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