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The actual living part of soils is quite small, but in order for that biology to work, they need the right balance of moisture, pathways for air, bio-available minerals and organic matter.


human beings to [restore soils],” he contin- ues. “Some cultures have done it. We’re just now discovering how the Amazonian took soils unfi t for agricultural land and turned it into great soil. It’s anthropomorphic soil. People manipulated it to increase the soil effi ciency, to the point that at one point 10 or 15 million people lived there. “We need to relearn how to do paleo-


farming,” he explains. “We need to trade information with other cultures that know how to reinforce their natural systems, not destroy them. Most farms, even good ones, don’t achieve more than 15% to 20% of their potential.”


Hidden Treasure The living things below ground are often overlooked entirely as part of the biomass of an ecosystem. As Yvonne Baskin points out in “Under Ground,” a prairie grows more biomass below ground than the grasses above. Soils are often misunderstood and underestimated, especially the thin layer of earth able to support life. He notes with iro- ny that $820 million has been spent trying to probe the surface of Mars with the last two rovers, “vastly exceeding what has been spent exploring the soil beneath our feet.” A single spade of healthy garden soil,


he notes, “may harbor more species than the entire Amazon nurtures above ground. Two thirds of the Earth’s biological diver- sity lives in its terrestrial soils and under- water sediments.” You could easily spend a college se- mester just learning the basics of how soils


work. Scientists, Baskin says, have classi- fi ed Earth’s soils into 11 major orders, “from the dark, fertile Mollisols of temperate grasslands to the highly weathered Oxisols of the humid tropics.” The web of life in these soils is just be-


ginning to be understood. For example, the role of fungi is extremely complex. They bring in oxygen, help plant roots absorb water and fi ght off pathogens. Microbes also play a key role, con-


verting airborne nitrogen into nitrates that plants can absorb. They, too, keep unwanted pathogens at bay. The point: All of these symbiotic sys-


tems have a place in a healthy soil system. Treat the soil as inert “growing medium,” and you destroy its ability to support vi- brant life. Fulford uses genetically modifi ed


crops as an example of the perils in ignor- ing how plants and soils really work. “GMO grains have no immune system,


because they’re incomplete plants, suscep- tible to molds, such as fusaria,” he says. “The mycotoxins that grow on these grains are so toxic that they can kill a whole barn full of animals in one feeding. “I’ve stood around with farmers


watching a lot of animals die,” he contin- ues. “The more we rely on GMO grains, the more exposed they will be to disease. We’re seeing fewer and fewer good grain crops brought in when we do analyses.”


Sickness or Health Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design in Ver- mont points out, there are only fi ve areas


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