Fresh Old Ideas: Soil is a forgotten essential

Pioneer columnist Arnold Malone reflcts on this most basic of essentials

Of all the important resources, soil receives the least attention. Unfortunately, soil is like water; we never miss it until it is gone.

We, rightfully, pay a lot of attention to forests, oil, gas, and the minerals but soil is a forgotten essential. There are only two sources for human food and one is water and the other is soil. Other than seafood, everything called “food” comes from soil.

Soil seems so abundant that we take it for granted. Most of the original agricultural land in the climatically favourable regions of Canada are now permanently removed from production. The world situation is worse.

Canada is a big country so it is easy to think that we have an abundance of good agricultural land. Only 8% of Canada’s lands are suitable for agriculture, a percentage that shrinks with the passing decades.

During the settlement of the prairies, the pioneers settled on those locations where the poplar trees grew tall and straight. It is not a coincidence that the major cities on the Prairies, excepting Medicine Hat and Calgary, have all been built on old geological lake beds. All of those cities, except Fort McMurray, are located on silted soils, the highest quality of agricultural lands.

Cities such as Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg are all in the midst of old geological lake beds. From the air, it is possible to see the rims of some of those by-gone lakes.

These lands are disappearing because of urban sprawl and transportation corridors.

At the birth of Christianity, about 2000 years ago, the world population was around 240 million. It took 1,850 years- the year 1850- to reach our first billion persons. Since then the growth has been exponential. We are now required to feed 7.5 billion mouths only 167 years later.

It requires 20,000 years in this the temperate zone for nature, undisturbed, to produce one inch of top soil.

Some Canadian cities must either grow upward or accept that growth will consume quality land. Regina is such an example. However, many cities in Canada have options on direction of growth but choose to expand on prime agricultural land because it is marginally easier for the developers.

The problem is not just within Canada. My first degree, Agricultural Science, was at Montana State University in the beautiful Gallatin Valley. Then, professors loved to proclaim that this valley was the second most fertile in the USA. I returned a couple of years ago for a reunion and found the valley packed full of houses. Goodbye food production.

Perhaps all of this wouldn’t matter so much if earth could stabilize her human population. Then, again, that is another subject too tender to discuss; meaning it gets scarce attention in mainstream media.

We are now adding another billion mouths about every five years. At some point we will simply run out of a food supply. Some researchers already claim if there were a magical distribution system that distributed equal foods to all peoples, there would be barely enough carbohydrates to go around and a woeful shortfall of protein.

So, while the human population explodes, the best of agricultural lands are used for backfill for homes and factories. If urban planners are aware of the potential food crisis they ought to be held responsible for allowing class 1 and 2 soils to be used for urban expansion without a test for necessity.

A poem by Shelly sums up this message:

I met a traveler in an antique land

Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

stand in the desert, Near them on the sand,

half sunk, a shattered visage lies.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;”

On the pedestal these words appeared –

“Look upon my works ye Mighty and despair.”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Arnold Malone served as MP for Alberta’s Battle River and Crowfoot ridings from 1974 through 1993. He retired to Invermere in 2007.

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