Slow Money: Reconnecting the Economy to Soil, Biodiversity and Food Quality

What does soil fertility have to do with social capital, community, and our understanding of our place in the grand scheme of things?


| December 2, 2010



Slow Money

Could there ever be an alternative stock exchange dedicated to slow, small and local? Could a million American families get their food from CSAs? What if you had to invest 50 percent of your assets within 50 miles of where you live? Such questions — at the heart of “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money” — represent the first steps on our path to a new economy. 


COVER: CHELSEA GREEN

The following is an excerpt from Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered by Woody Tasch (Chelsea Green, 2008). Tasch presents an essential new strategy for investing in local food systems, and introduces a group of fiduciary activists who are exploring what should replace the outdated concepts of industrial finance and industrial agriculture. This excerpt is from the prologue. 

Civilization is a big idea. So is the idea that as soil goes, so goes civilization. So is the idea that as money goes, so goes the soil. We don’t need any more big ideas.

We need small ideas. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful because they lead to a large number of beautiful, small actions — the kind alluded to by Wendell Berry: “Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be solved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints.”

There is another kind of erosion at work, just as surely, here: erosion of social capital, erosion of community, erosion of an understanding of our place in the scheme of things.

Peak Soil

It takes roughly a millennium to build an inch or two of soil. It takes less than 40 years, on average, to strip an inch of soil by farming in ways that are more focused on current yield than on sustaining fertility. A third of America’s topsoil has eroded since 1776. In the 1970s, the United States lost 4 billion tons of soil per year. Roughly a third of all farmland in the world has been degraded since World War II, with annual soil erosion worldwide equivalent to the loss of 12 million hectares of arable land, or 1 percent of total arable land. About a third of China’s 130 million hectares of farmland is seriously eroded, and Chinese crop yields fell by more than 10 percent from 1999 to 2003, despite increasing application of synthetic fertilizers.

Awareness of the centrality of soil health is nothing new. Aristotle laid the foundation for the humus theory of plant nutrition, and his student, Theophrastus, is often called “the father of botany.” The homo of Homo sapiens is derived from the Latin, humus, for living soil. Leonardo da Vinci observed, “We know more about the movement of the celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Darwin spent the last years of his life studying the role of earthworms in soil fertility. After World War I, Sir Albert Howard, perhaps the father of 20th-century organic agriculture, heralded the problems that would follow the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers by munitions factories looking for new postwar markets for nitrates: Fertilizers offered farmers boosts in yield but had deleterious effects on the health of microorganisms and the processes of growth and decay that are vital to the preservation of humus. In the first decade of the 21st century, despite beyond-explosive growth in our knowledge of everything from atomic energy to galactic motion, our ignorance with respect to life teeming in the soil remains humbling: It is estimated that in a gram of soil, there are billions of single-celled organisms and millions more multicelled ones, as well as more than 4,000 species, most of them not yet named or studied by scientists.

coyoteridgefarms
12/7/2010 11:59:10 AM

When my dad was near retirement, he opened his farm to big farming practices. Towards the end of his life, when I came to visit, I could see the soil of his small farm disappear - it was turning to sand. Since his passing, we will forever try to correct the damage. We have been on the farm for 3 short years. No chemicals are allowed, we pasture/free-range all our animals (cattle, goats, sheep, and poultry) the planting of perennials is a focus and in 2011, comes our Organic Certification. As I mentioned on FB, Great article. Thanks much from West-central MN Rich & Carol http://CoyoteRidgeFarms.com/


coyoteridgefarms
12/7/2010 11:56:07 AM

This is exactly the solution for the problem we are trying to correct. When my dad was near retirement, he opened his farm to big farming practices. He hired the work done. Towards the end of his life, when I came to visit, I could see the soil of his small farm disappear - it was turning to sand. Since his passing, we will forever try to correct the damage. We have been on the farm for 3 short years. No chemicals are allowed, we pasture/free-range all our animals (cattle, goats, sheep, and poultry) the planting of perennials is a focus and in 2011, comes our Organic Certification. As I mentioned on FB, Great article. Thanks much from West-central MN Rich & Carol http://CoyoteRidgeFarms.com/


peter donovan
12/4/2010 8:54:01 PM

A well-meaning article. But the hoary old tale that it takes a millennium (1000 years) or more to form an inch of soil was gently rebuked by Charles E. Kellogg, head of the USDA Soil Survey division, who wrote in his 1941 book The Soils That Support Us: "Some people speculate about how much time is required to build an inch of soil material. The answer could well be, 'somewhere between 10 minutes and 10 million years.' Soils, and soil organic matter, can be built rapidly by living organisms working together. To participate in this, join the Soil Carbon Challenge: soilcarboncoalition.org






Crowd at Seven Springs MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Sept. 15-17, 2017
Seven Springs, PA.

With more than 150 workshops, there is no shortage of informative demonstrations and lectures to educate and entertain you over the weekend.

LEARN MORE