The Sauce / Tidbits

‘Did you know?’ Soil Science & History

by Huiying Ng

1. Nearly a billion tonnes of topsoil was lost during the 1930s dust bowl in America. It wasn’t just blown away, to be put back. Because an inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form, the loss was catastrophic. It changed the way agriculture, soil science and national security was developed in America. 

Did you know that soil science used to consider the history and genetics of soil? Soil genealogy (i.e. where it comes from) was once the bedrock of soil science–it went hand in hand with geology. Today, soil science primarily considers and assesses soil based on morphology–soil structure, the way it looks, but not its biological life — the way it grows, spreads, and ages. As a result of this evaluation criteria, soil is evaluated as a purely natural, physical phenomenon, and human effects on soil are not measured. The US, which began intensive work mapping its soils after the dust bowl, has soil maps — with urban “blackholes” where the science does not reach. This is explored in detail here

2. We are connected to soil in more ways than we realize. Just think: a third of the earth is covered in soil! That’s approximately 2344 Gigatons (1 Gt = 1 billion tonnes) of organic carbon, making it the world’s largest terrestrial pool of organic carbon. Unfortunately, this giant potential carbon sink is also becoming increasingly polluted by industrial and household products, wastes, and runoff —everything that goes into our daily lifestyles and consumption habits. We like to think of it sitting quietly in plots of land or getting carted around between nations, but soil is really a single body of continuous work that stretches between all our worlds. Metaphorically and literally, soils grant us nurturing space as much as space to stretch, but is often left on the wayside as dirt. Loose soils grant access to nutrients, access to other plants and beings, and the soils in our immediate spaces stretch us away from ourselves: feeding mosses and ferns, wayside plants and overlooked shrubs, they grow the arcades and facades that we humans move through. How do we attend more to soil?

3. Soil organic carbon is the basis of soil fertility. It is the amount of carbon stored in soil, and a component of total soil organic matter. Carbon kept in soil stays away from the atmosphere; and circulating carbon fuels life as plants grow, producing food. In 1990 a Global Assessment of Soil Degradation was made, combining maps from 21 areas of the world—the transnational efforts of soil scientists reaching across nation-states. This produced a World Map of the Status of Human-induced Soil Degradation . Reading the description of the map, you might be struck by the way soils move as a composite body on the planet, through natural and manmade structures. The map describes 12 forms of soil degradation caused through various agricultural activities, irrigation, land reclamation, acidification due to over-application of fertilizers and drainage of pyrite-containing soils. Soil is compacted and waterlogged through human intervention in natural drainage systems (though this doesn’t include paddy fields), and terrain is deformed as soils become exposed through overgrazing, removal of vegetation for monoculture agricultural purposes, riverbank destruction and mass movement.

GLASOD, 1991. WORLD MAP OF THE STATUS OF HUMAN-INDUCED SOIL DEGRADATION.

4. Zooming in to Southeast Asia, did you know the tropics stand to lose more from deforestation and agriculture than temperate countries? Each plot of land deforested in the tropics emits three times the carbon emitted by the same activities in temperate areas (West et al., 2010; open access). Put another way, saving tropical forests from deforestation, and reforesting already deforested ones, has the greatest impact on keeping our global carbon bank safe. The tropics also hold divisive, regulatory and symbolically rich layers laid on through centuries of conquest, the inheritance of colonial law, and social categorization in pursuit of their natural resources. 

5. Soil, as land, was once deeply connected to people’s sense of identity. “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [the English] Parliament authorized 4,000 acts of enclosure on behalf of the rising class of gentry, allowing them to expropriate about 15% of all of English common lands for their private use. These enclosures destroyed many commoners’ deep connection to the soil and destroyed their culture and traditions, paving the way for industrialization. A new class of people were created: wage-earners, consumers and paupers. People dispossessed of their commons who had no choice but to try to find a place for themselves in the new capitalist order.”

6. The loss of English commons took place over two centuries — the loss of commons in Southeast Asia today are happening in a matter of years through land enclosures in Yogyakarta, Kalimantan, Papua, and Sulawesi in Indonesia, and across Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. (Land enclosures in Singapore are a story for another time.) From 4,000 acts of enclosure in the seventeenth and eighteenth Century over 15% of all English common lands, global land enclosures now number in the millions of hectares, with wealthy countries investing in overseas land for food and biofuel production. 

Cover of the second Digger manifesto. June 1 1649.
“A Declaration from the Poor oppressed People of England”

Soil, ownership and culture are tightly woven. The Diggers are a group of agrarian communists who flourished in England in 1649-50. From 20 poor men in April 1649 who gathered at St. George’s Hill, Surrey, and began to cultivate the common land, they more than doubled in the same year. “The Diggers held that the English Civil Wars had been fought against the king and the great landowners; now that Charles I had been executed, land should be made available for the very poor to cultivate. (Food prices had reached record heights in the late 1640s.)” (1994, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.)

The Quintessential Diggers Manifesto. Source: diggers.org. (Direct link here)

The English Diggers inspired the San Francisco Diggers, who took the streets of 1960s counterculture SF as their stage across two brief years (1966-1968). The Diggers published pamphlets about their vision of the Free City, including one on Free Bread made only from whole wheat flour (a republished version shown here), and their money manifesto.

Diggerbread recipe. The Mother Earth News V1 No 1 Jan 1970. Credit: diggerfeed.org
Private Land in Thailand. Source: Landmatrix.org

7. Once privatized, land is used for commercial development. Soil pollution has become a leading cause of environmental and social problems in many parts of the world, leading to human chronic illnesses from direct or indirect exposure, in agriculture, industrial runoff, and emerging causes such as micro-plastics. While Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first raised the call for alarm in 1962, even today, scientists are continuing to find dangerous levels of contamination in the soils of villages and homes near industrial factories. Thankfully, some countries are beginning to take steps—China, the site of some of these studies, passed a law on 2 January 2019 giving its environmental authority the power to set national standards for soil pollution control, setting safeguards for one of its greatest assets—soil. This is more than just environmental policy: securing nitrogen reserves has long been a matter of food and national security. The protection of soils from pollution goes a step further to distinguish and carve out harmful practices, providing a resource to reject environmentally and socially unjust practices.

8. The Land Matrix is a global and independent land monitoring initiative that keeps track of land deals. It estimates a rise in failed and concluded land deals from 62 million hectares in August 2015 to 72 million hectares in October 2016 (http://www.landmatrix.org/en/). This does not include the oceans and air, also commons under threat of enclosure.

Land deals by Singapore on target countries. Source: LandMatrix.org

9. Did you know that soil is a global body that we literally and gastronomically stand on? Soil supports a majority of food and taste production—phytonutrients are made by plants in soil and contribute to taste. The more we create good soil, the better our food will taste and the lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.


Huiying is a geographer with a background in psychological research, with a love for synthesis, ideation and exploration. She writes and develops action research methodologies relevant to agroecological futures, and enjoys creating and working with people across disciplines. She will continue her research on agroecology and its learning networks in Southeast Asia, and their abilities to respond to infrastructural development in late 2020 as a doctoral researcher at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. She’s on Twitter and Instagram @fuiin and writes about food and agriculture on hynng.substack.com. You can also find her thoughts on research at anomalousitch.tumblr.com.