“We have only one planet,” says a new video. “Our health depends on it, just like its health depends on us.”
The message is a part of World Health Day, celebrated each year on April 7 to mark the 1948 founding of the World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations that tries to promote public health.
As we head toward harvest here in the southern hemisphere, I’m anxious about our result. In a couple of weeks, I’ll discover what kind of season we’ve had—and no matter what happens, I’ll know that our success or failure always starts in the soil.
So allow me to modify the words of the video: Human health depends on the health of our planet’s soil, and its health depends on us.
That’s what I’ve learned as a farmer in Uruguay. Every harvest begins with the seeds we place in the soil, which nurtures these embryonic plants and allows them to sprout and grow into the crops we need.
Because farmers produce the food we need, people sometimes think of us as plant biologists or botanists who work in fields rather than in labs. And it’s true that we devote ourselves to our crops.
Yet a part of what we do is even more fundamental: We’re soil scientists who seek to maintain the quality of the material from which everything must grow.
Like doctors who size up patients just by looking at them, good farmers can recognize the health of soil just by standing in its presence. I like to think that healthy soil resembles a healthy and hygienic person. It’s strong and has great color. You don’t even have to use your eyes: Healthy soil simply smells good.
For me, soil also takes on other human qualities. Unhealthy soil is sick. Healthy soil is happy—and happy soil makes for happy farmers.
On a closer and more analytical inspection of the soil, you notice its texture. The best soil is a perfect balance between lime, sand, and clay. It has roots and holes. As with people, it wants company: Worms dig through its darkness, digesting organic matter and leaving behind nutrients.
Sometimes we think of dirt as dead, and it can be—but the healthiest soil is gloriocusly alive. We can observe much of its life, but a lot of it remains beyond our power of sight, taking the form of microorganisms that are too small to see.
Soil needs our protection, and that starts with a proper covering. This includes the crops we grow such as the soybeans, canola, and barley that I rotate in and out of production. It also includes the residue that we leave behind following a harvest or the service crops we plant between food crops.
Farmers work the land, but we prefer not to disrupt the soil. That’s why I practice no-till agriculture. Rather than ripping up our fields by plowing between plantings, I try to keep moisture and nutrients locked in the ground. This is good for the soil as well as for the climate, because it improves the carbon sequestration, storing carbon in the soil, that is a key part of any sensible climate strategy.
Getting the most out of our soil allows us to get the most out of our crops, and that means we need crops that take advantage of what the soil can offer. This obligates us to use the best seeds available, including those with GM and gene-editing traits that fight weeds, pests, disease, extreme weather, and more.
The best way to understand the difference between the top-performing crops and ordinary crops may be from looking at a picture.
If we don’t use the most productive crops, we waste what the soil provides.
Our goals of sustainability and conservation drive many of our decisions. We seek to keep the soil viable so it can grow the food we need right now as well as in the future. And because of all the stress the world continues to put on the environment—industrialization, urbanization, and population growth—we’re called on to grow more food on less land.
The only way to meet this challenge is to invest in the health of our soil.
Our health and the health of our world depends on it.