Friday, July 12, 2024
Chris Judd

Older than dirt

Older than dirt. When we hear that phrase we think of an old cowboy with a cowboy hat and his skin as brown as the earth and so badly wrinkled that it looks about three sizes too big for him.
Are we really older than dirt? What really is dirt? Being an old farmer, I immediately think of topsoil. That’s the top six to eight inches of soil that grows everything that you and I eat, everything that all the animals on Earth eat. It is what we came from and under which we are laid when we die.
Only 10 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered with soil. Twenty four billion tonnes of fertile soil is lost to erosion every year. Only 6.2 per cent of the land in Canada is economical to grow food on. Typical topsoil is approximately 45 per cent mineral, 25 per cent air, 25 per cent water and 5 per cent organic matter. It is in that organic matter that natural fertility happens. One teaspoon of healthy topsoil can contain up to one billion microscopic cells, and 10,000 different species of microbes. These little animals break down rock particles, organic matter, plant residue like corn stalks, are used with water to create soil structure and improve plant growth.
Forty years ago, federal senator Herb Sparrow headed a committee that traveled from coast to coast across Canada to look at the erosion, soil degradation, and removal of farmland from ever being farmed again. Unfortunately, it seems that very few politicians ever read the book Soil at Risk which was edited and printed in both French and English and made available free from the Queen’s Printer. One quote especially caught my eye: “Forests can be replanted, fisheries can be restocked, but once soil is gone, that is the end of economic agricultural production. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will never see a rejuvenation of our soils.”
We have recently watched every province in Canada remove or want to remove thousands of acres of our very best productive farmland to build houses, factories, roads, parking lots, and power corridors. Meanwhile, Canada has more than 90 per cent of our land with beautiful freshwater lakes, thousands of miles of trails through untouched virgin forests which could be inhabited with the addition of some new roads and rail service, but never be fit to grow crops on commercially. Many of those areas are hundreds of miles closer to recreational heaven and our population is asking for shorter work weeks and more leisure time.
Since the first major alarm was raised with the release of Soil at Risk, thousands of acres of our finest farmland has been compromised by the coming of new technology. The coming of sewage sludge from large cities seemed like a godsend for both farmers who needed organic matter and fertility, and cities that needed a way to dispose of solid waste that used to be dumped in landfills or rivers. Although many of these waste sludge products were checked for the presence of heavy metals, and the fields that receive the waste were soil-tested and only recommended amounts of sludge were applied, some microfibres of plastic were coming in with the wash water from washing machines. Those fibres have a very, very long decomposing life, if ever. The latest contaminants found in soils are known as PFAS. They are called forever chemicals because they never deteriorate. They are known to cause cancer and shorten your life. Once found in soils of a farm, that farmland may never be used for farming again. They are found in many cosmetics to make them smoother and waterproof, and in chemicals used to make coats and other outerwear waterproof. Their common use makes those chemicals commonly found in sewage sludge. Very few cities in very few countries have their sewer water or sludge tested for the presence of PFAS. Some fields and whole farms in some US states have been declared contaminated and deemed unfarmable. Most universities can test for PFAS if asked.
Our present world population now exceeds eight billion people with an increasing number starving or not able to afford to buy food. Remember that clean air, non-contaminated water, and an ever-shrinking amount of topsoil to produce food on, are and will be the absolute necessities for the future existence of human life on this old planet. What is spent on nice clothes, different modes of transportation, a mansion or a tent, or how much is spent on killing each other are all dependent on priorities and how long our grandchildren might plan on having an existence on this planet. Let’s let our politicians know what our priorities are.

Chris Judd is a farmer in Clarendon on land that has been in his family for generations.

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