To the Editor:
Civilizations throughout history have risen and flourished on foundations of healthy, organic-matter-rich soils. While such soils lasted, they provided food surpluses that could be stored for lean seasons and that freed many to concentrate on year-round commerce, governance, health care, soldiering, artisanship, literature, art, education, and having lots of babies.
Yet healthy soils have always provided much more than just abundant food. Soil organic matter provides essential ecosystem services like clean water, dependable rainfall, flood prevention, drought mitigation, pest and disease control, fisheries and pollinator habitat, ground water and aquifer recharge, erosion prevention, nutrient retention, and most recently climate change mitigation.
No civilization has survived the destruction of its soils. Yet, we are on that path once again, not because our farmers are incompetent, but because society remains largely ignorant of its most foundational asset, soil organic matter.
We demand ever more abundant food of all kinds in all seasons but pay farmers next to nothing.
The typical farmer struggles gamely pushing the limits of organic-matter-destroying conventional practice, hanging on by his/her fingernails as rising costs of land, seed, machinery, chemicals, fertilizer, fuel, insurance, and labor devour profits.
They couldn’t afford to change the way they farm if they wanted to. That must change.
We will soon face a sobering reality. Three-fourths of the world’s soil organic matter is gone.
The rest will disappear in the next thirty to forty years along with the diminishing petrochemicals now depleting it in our inevitably futile effort to keep soils productive. California’s once-fertile central valley is only twenty years behind Syria, the former cradle of civilization, now desertified, unproductive, and depopulated.
The Midwest is no less susceptible to such failure. Soil organic matter is our most consequential crop, yet we value it like so much dirt.
Society must pay farmers for regenerating and stewarding this essential public utility for the ecosystem services it provides. As climate change mounts, a tax on carbon emissions becomes inevitable.
Congress needs to hear emphatically … there’s no better way to invest that revenue than restoring our soil organic matter, rescuing both our farmers and our civilization.
Donovan C. Wilkin