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Are We Soiling Dirt? The Peril of Earth's Microbiome

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Dirt is underappreciated. It sprouts trees and produce, houses beneficial organisms, and swallows disease that could otherwise affect humans. Without rich soil, we wouldn’t have any food to eat or air to breath.

Those are some high stakes, right?

Sadly, this magical product of Mother Earth has not been spared abuse by modern living. Like the rest of the environment, major repercussions of industrialization have taken a toll on our soil.

Dirt is getting...dirtier.

When we say “healthy” or “fertile” soil, we’re actually referring to—you guessed it—diversity of bacteria! A rich and thriving microbiome, including interactions between underground fungi and plant roots, is crucial to the growth of nutrient-dense produce.

Due to our poor treatment of the land, that diversity is slowly disappearing.

So before we say a eulogy for dirt and move on, we must remember that to harm the soil is to harm ourselves. Below, we list a few ways modernization has damaged the dirt in ways that impact us, too:

  1. Illegal dumping of chemicals into water sources: Waste chemicals contaminate water and can seep into the soil. Contaminated soil leads to lower crop yields, and residues can remain in plants eaten by livestock or by us.
  2. Waste disposal: Landfills are ever-growing and full of toxins. These make their way into the earth, affecting organisms, soil structure, and contaminating water that comes into contact with them.
  3. Lead pollution: Lead is naturally found in amounts between 7 to 20 parts per million (ppm) in the soil. However, due to lead in auto emissions and lead paint chips on homes and buildings, the level of lead in common soil has increased, so much so that a level of 300 ppm of lead is now deemed normal and “safe” for your home garden. Lead exposure has significant human health risks and the lead taken up by your leafy green plants can be dangerous if eaten.
  4. Pesticides and Fertilizers: These chemicals get absorbed in the dirt and taken up by growing plants (which we then eat). Pesticides and fertilizers can also contribute to water contamination.

Wait, but isn’t dirt a renewable resource?

Well, yes. But not so fast. Though dirt is technically renewable in a pristine environment, soil erosion is wiping it away far quicker than it can replenish itself.

Erosion is caused by three major activities: 

  1. Construction: Digging up dirt for building construction disrupts the soil structure, which can then be blown away by wind.
  2. Mining: Similar to above, dirt is disrupted and removed. Plants rooted in the soil are removed and make the dirt more vulnerable to wind and weather. Mining also exposes the minerals and rocks found at deep in the earth to chemical weathering. This can lead to a type of soil pollution known as acid drainage in which sulfide minerals react with water to produce sulfuric acid. This acid can cause other metals to be removed from the rock into the soil, contaminating water that passes through the soil and the plants grown in the soil.
  3. Agriculture: Farming is the largest source of erosion on Earth, and the most dangerous. Improper farming techniques such as tilling, overgrazing by livestock, and a lack of crop rotation can lead to weak topsoil that is infertile and unstable. A study completed at Cornell University in 2006 found that because of soil erosion, 30 of Earth’s total land capable of supporting agriculture have become infertile. 60 of the soil that is blown away winds up in water sources, contaminating them with the chemicals found in pesticides and fertilizers. Furthermore, the U.S. is losing soil at a rate 10 times as fast as it is renewed.

How to preserve the ground we walk on:

When it comes to our soil, we shouldn’t bite the hand that (literally) feeds us. Our own health is dependent on dirt health!

The first step towards preserving Earth’s dirt is to recognize it as a part of daily life. But if we aren’t miners or construction workers and don’t own a farm, can we still support the future of healthy soil?

Of course we can! Let us count the ways :)

  1. Recycle
  2. Compost
  3. Buy organic fruits and veggies to support the non-use of pesticides and fertilizers. (For your own health, fruits and vegetables with the thinnest skins are most important to buy organically.)
  4. Plant plants and use mulch to prevent erosion
  5. Minimize car useage
  6. Use a drip tray to prevent engine oil dripping
  7. Reduce plastic and package use
  8. Purchase natural food, beauty, and skin care products with minimal packaging and waste

 In short, soil preservation follows the golden mantra of environmental work: every action, and every person, CAN make an impact. Follow these steps—and encourage your friends, family, and coworkers to do the same—and we’ll be able to reap the benefits of this wonderful resource a little longer.

 


 
 
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