Ultimately, the plants we eat are made up of energy from the sun and compounds and elements extracted from the soil. Meat, eggs and diary are the same, just one step removed.
This means the availability and nutritional value of food is heavily dependent on healthy soil.
A recently released commission report raises the alarm over the lack of information and monitoring of Swiss soil and argues the nation must work harder to protect its soil. If a global food shortage struck the country would have very little margin for maintaining food self sufficiency, reported RTS.
One key threat to Swiss soil is population growth and the related building construction, which is consuming farm land. In addition, a larger population means there are more people to feed.
For 30 years the government has been formulating a plan to protect highly cultivatable areas of soil. These zones, which are deemed irreplaceable and essential, must be protected by cantonal authorities to ensure they are not exhausted or constructed on.
Currently, there are 440,000 hectares of cultivatable land in Switzerland, an area that is only just enough to make Switzerland self sufficient in food. The current area exceeds the minimum requirement by as little as 1.59%.
The decline in arable land has worried us for some time, said Thomas de Courten, a parliamentarian and member of the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP). The problem is that once good soil is lost it cannot be recovered, he said.
The commission looking at Swiss soil has become more vocal and would like to see soil protection covered by the law with an obligation to compensate for every piece of arable land constructed on. Measures taken over the last five years have helped but are not enough, said de Courten. One key problem is a lack of information on soil health, something that must be remedied.
In addition to construction, there are many things that destroy soil. Soil is a surprising complex organism. It is an ecosystem made up of dirt, minerals, organic matter, living organisms, including bacteria, gas, and water. A teaspoon of healthy soil contains between 100 million and 1 billion microscopic bacteria. It is a highly delicate and complex ecosystem.
Some of the most soil damaging practices are connected to farming. Yield-boosting synthetic fertilisers pose a significant threat to soil health. Long term use of these products can kill important microorganisms in soil and leach into ground water.
Tilling is another threat to soil. In addition to releasing significant amounts of carbon it degrades the surface layer by exposing bacteria and organic soil matter to the air and compacting the soil below. This often leads to increased use of synthetic fertiliser as farmers try to get the same yield out of damaged soil. Synthetic pesticides also contribute to soil damage. These chemicals kill soil organisms that help to move carbon from plant roots into the soil.
So careful farming practices are likely to be part of the solution. A decreased dependency on livestock would also help. Far less arable land is required to feed a population with plants than with meat and other animal based products.