A telescope pointed at the sky and a microscope pointed at the Earth both uncover mysterious and little-known realms. Soil might not evoke the romance of space, if the number of blockbuster movies set there is any indication (*Dear Paul Rudd: Antman is uniquely qualified to reverse this trend. Have at it.) But soil is amazing, and it is bursting with life and potential. Author and fellow soilophile Josh Tickell writes, "If you dig your hand into some rich soil and pull up a handful, you hold vastly more interactions of life than there are stars in our galaxy." (Seriously, Antman, what are you waiting for?! The script practically writes itself.)
Taking a serious look at soil can turn some of our basic assumptions about the world upside down. If you asked ten people to name the largest organism on the planet, how many would insist it was one of the great whales? Probably most, but the truth is both weirder and dirtier. The largest organisms on the planet don't live in the sea; they live in the soil: vast networks of mycorrhizal (pronounced MIKE-o-RISE-al) fungi that are thousands of years old. The biggest of the big is right under our feet in the Pacific Northwest: Armillaria ostoyae, expanding across 2,400 acres and known to its friends and fans as the Humungous Fungus. These massive networks form complex relationships with all manner of microorganisms in the soil, delivering life-sustaining nutrients to the wild and domesticated plants which populate the land.
At least, that's how it's supposed to be. The Earth's topsoil — the 2-3 feet layer of nutrient-rich material on which all of our lives depend — is well on its way to becoming an endangered species. In the last 150 years, about half of the topsoil in the US has been lost: depleted by destructive agricultural practices, washed into waterways, turned salty and inhospitable by floods, or blown from one state to the next by fierce winds. The topsoil that remains just isn't what it used to be: it's low in organic matter, low in nutrients, and less able to withstand drastic weather just as drastic weather is becoming the new normal. The soil is weary.
Soil scientist and 2020 World Food Prize Laureate Rattan Lal explains the perils of extractive agriculture beautifully:
"Soil is like a bank account. In a bank account, you cannot withdraw more than what you put in it. … Anything that we take out of soil — nitrogen and phosphates, potassium, nutrients — whatever we take out we must replace them. ... If you do not replace, soil will not produce. ... The soil productive capacity has been mined out. Soils have been taken for granted. That is where they do not produce. "
If soil is like a bank account, industrial-style farming with GMOs is like coasting along on high-interest loans: it might get you by for a while, but it's essentially propping up a failed system. Crops that are encouraged to eke out a meager existence in degraded soil are more likely to fail, leading to a myriad of "chemical cures" that further harm the soil. The vast majority of GMOs cultivated in the US are engineered for tolerance to herbicides or to produce insecticides. Since their introduction in the 1990s, the adoption of herbicide-tolerant GMOs has led to a 15-fold increase in herbicide use. These chemicals have serious and compound effects on our ecosystems and our soil.
Take my glyphosate, please
The most widely-used herbicide in the world is Roundup. Roundup is a glyphosate-based product originally manufactured by Monsanto, with an array of GMO corn, soy, cotton and alfalfa seed designed to accompany it. The idea behind glyphosate-tolerant crops is to allow farmers to kill weeds without damaging their cash crop, while Monsanto-Bayer sells multiple products to each customer, rather than just the seed. Even that cynical reality is not so clear cut. Frequent herbicide applications ultimately breed herbicide-resistant "superweeds," necessitating ever more toxic applications. The chemicals also penetrate the soil, disturbing the life that resides there. Glyphosate gathers in the leaves of soybean plants, emerging into the soil through the roots. Once there, it inhibits soy's ability to access and use nitrogen. As part of the legume family, accessing nitrogen is one of the humble soybeans' great talents. Hindering it is like making Superman wear a cummerbund fashioned from pure kryptonite.
Glyphosate also increases the growth of destructive fungi in the soil, like Fusarium, which is of special concern as "it does not only affect plants. It produces toxins that can enter the food chain and harm humans and livestock." The third of the "triple threats" posed by glyphosate is its interference in the nutrient uptake of GMO plants, stunting plant growth and lowering nutrient density in the crop.
Predictably, biotech companies have developed more products to combat these issues, such as Roundup Ready GMO soybean seed covered in anti-fungal and insecticidal coatings, and an inoculant to be applied to GMO soy fields to boost nitrogen fixation. But these are band-aid measures with spotty efficacy, at best. To quote Earth Open Source research: "Such chemical treadmills are profitable for seed and chemical companies, but are costly to farmers and add to the toxic burden borne by humans, animals and the environment."
After years of faithful glyphosate applications, farmers faced with superweeds are adopting even more toxic herbicides like dicamba and 2,4-D, each with its own sets of problems.
Coming soon to the ground near you
Join us for our second installment on GMOs and soil health. We'll explore the infamous impact of Bt crops, and examine how tradition and technology can work together to rebuild topsoil. Until then, ask yourself this: Why, oh why, is there no WWE character based on the powerfully bizarre Humungous Fungus? Popular culture has been asleep at the wheel on soil-based storylines.
Josh Tickell, Kiss The Ground, 2017.
John Fagan et al., GMO Myths and Truths, second edition, 2014.