The topic of soil fertility is a key aspect to understanding permaculture approaches and perspectives. This is because healthy and nutritious soil is what enables plants to grow and determines much of the nutritional value of any food that plants produce.
The earth’s crust is a diverse range minerals in the form of rocks and sediment and healthy soil is a complex web of life with micro-organisms and networks of fungi called mycorrhiza that connect up this system as well as the plant roots that feed into and from this network. Together they help process and distribute the minerals from rocks, sediment and organic material – creating what is called a humous layer of rich fertile soil.
For land to remain fertile this humous layer needs to be maintained. This is done by treating it as a living ecosystem.
Industrial agricultural systems are harmful to soil fertility because they spray crops with pesticides that seep into the soil and kill the soils micro-organisms. Thus destroying the fundamental living element of the soils ecosystem.
Soils are also disturbed and damaged by ploughing, which brings healthy soil to the surface where it is then left exposed to die and can often get washed away by rain or wind. Mono-crops are also planted meaning that the diverse network of root systems found in nature are lost.
As a short term solution to the destruction of genuinely healthy and nutritious soil, industrial agricultural systems put animal fertilisers such as manure, ground up bones (bone meal) and blood (blood meal) onto crop soil and spray fertilisers enriched with minerals that are mined from the ground. These sources of nutrients are based upon extractive industries that are unsustainable and further damage natural ecosystems.
THE ROLE OF ANIMALS IN SOIL FERTILITY
As mentioned, animal agriculture has become inextricably linked with industrial agriculture – with manure, blood meal and bone meal being added to soils. However for animals to be produced on the large scales that they are today they also require on crops for them to consume.
This demand for food for animals can lead to overgrazing of land which further degrades its quality, leading towards desertification. It is also one of the driving factors in deforestation – as land is cleared for grazing or the production of crops that can then be fed to animals.
This is not to say that animals’ roles in land management and development are inherently wrong. Natural herds of animals migrating across pastures used to create diverse ecosystems and their numbers were kept in check by natural predators. However due to the way in which agricultural practice has divided up land and destroyed natural animals habitats this system is unfortunately rare these days.
Instead, on land that is aiming to not be industrialised agriculture, animals may often still be kept in confined conditions and fed organic matter in order to produce manure as well as milk and meat. Alternatively they may graze land that is considered to be not viable for growing food. Some permaculturists might argue that these roles animals play are essential and some vegans may also advocate animals playing a role in their growing systems – simply abstaining from eating them or their produce and providing fair and kind living conditions.
VEGAN PERMACULTURE & SOIL NUTRITION
Achieving optimum soil fertility using vegan permaculture methods involves a variety of techniques such as:
– No-till (not ploughing or disturbing the soil).
– Maintaining ground cover using techniques such as “chop and drop” where organic material is left on the land or growing plants that spread and cover the ground.
– Planting nitrogen fixing plants that have deep root systems that bring up nutrients into the soil ecosystem.
– Avoiding use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers so as to encourage a healthy and diverse range of microorganisms.
– Mixed planting to encourage a wider variety of insects and a more diverse contribution to and extraction from the soils fertility.
(The techniques listed above are not exclusive to vegan permaculture.)
Soil fertility is a big topic and this is just a quick introduction to its importance as well as some of the current issues there are with soil fertility worldwide.