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Call it dirt or soil, we’re losing it

July 7, 2010

My high school science teacher taught me one thing I’ll never forget: dirt and soil are not one in the same. Dirt implies some kind of useless, gross substance lurking in corners of old buildings. Soil on the other, is this rich material that sustains life. But no matter what you want to call it, we are losing it.

I know, it seems like a strange thing to lose, but the fact is that for every unit of food we consume (grown using conventional U.S. agricultural methods), six times that amount of topsoil is lost. By the U.S. Food and Drug administration that’s roughly 12,000 pounds of topsoil a year. Highly inefficient. And definitely not sustainable.

The march issue of Ode magazine features an interesting article about the loss of our soil. It focuses on John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. He also runs a non-profit, Ecology Action and according to the article, “his philosophy in general is that civilization needs to scale down, localize, put more elbow grease and less fossil fuel into the food chain.” Sounds reasonable to me.

Check out the full article here. It’s an interesting picture of how we can farm and garden so that we generate as much topsoil as we use. One thing is for sure, composting is key. The article points out that roughly 25% of our municipal waste is food and yard trimmings, material that could be broken down and used to re-plenish our strained agricultural system.

The good news, however, is that more and more of us are growing our own food in small backyards, on rooftops, and through CSAs. Just look at Michelle and Barack’s front lawn. We are supporting more farmer’s markets than ever and digging up our lawns to grow tomatoes. Seed sales increased 19% last year in the U.S.

So it’s not all bad news, we just need to remember, as taught in grade school, that soil is more than just dirt.

photo credit: flickr/ I vow to you

65 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2010 9:06 am

    12,000 lbs. is a lot. I just started growing veggies in my back yard, me and my grandfather.

  2. July 8, 2010 9:37 am

    Interesting post – I didn’t realize we were losing so much soil! I’ll have to keep reading. I’m an avid composter and live in a town with strong composting support, but I know we are unusual.

    I am also thrilled to see Andy Goldsworthy on your Inspiring Books list. I love his work and he has done a couple installations here – Ithaca, NY. He’s amazing.

  3. July 8, 2010 9:40 am

    Great post! I’m checking out the article next. Thanks!

  4. July 8, 2010 9:49 am

    we are distroing our planet…the government should take action.

    • July 9, 2010 8:41 am

      We obviously can not count on our government. It is your planet! Take your own action. Grow your own food and teach your children and grandchildren how to do the same. Share with your neighbors and teach anyone who shows interest how to do it for themslves. By the time the government gets around to it~It may be too late.

  5. July 8, 2010 9:51 am

    That’s cool!

  6. Rob permalink
    July 8, 2010 9:59 am

    Great post

  7. Eukalo permalink
    July 8, 2010 10:24 am

    I want to recomend the book “Forest Farming” de J. Sholto Douglas.

  8. Elizabeth permalink
    July 8, 2010 10:27 am

    I love this post… I also love your content..

  9. July 8, 2010 10:30 am

    I had no idea that soil was becoming endangered. I know my neighbors are jealous of the humus deposits in my yard, but now I’m going to have to keep an extra close eye on them to make sure they don’t go missing.

    The Codger

  10. July 8, 2010 10:32 am

    Thanks for posting about the article about soil in Ode magazine. I’ll have to read it, since I have mediocre results from vegetables in my garden. The flowers are doing well, but the vegetables aren’t so wild. Thanks for spreading the word! And I liked the statistic you mentioned about seed sales increasing by 19% last year. Good news!

  11. July 8, 2010 11:21 am

    I didn’t know that much soil is being lost! But I did know that composting is good, so I convinced my parents to let me have a compost heap behind our garage. I can’t wait for some of it to be ready for the next growing season– I’m digging up various parts of my and my garndparents’ backyard for a veggie/herb garden.
    Hopefully more people will realize that many sustainable practices like composting are simple and effective…

  12. July 8, 2010 11:58 am

    I enjoyed this short and to-the-point article. It’s a healthy reminder. Thanks for your care.

  13. July 8, 2010 12:09 pm

    Nice post. We’re loosing other things too, biodiversity for example:

  14. July 8, 2010 12:11 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I keep meaning to start my veggie garden next year…this is a heck of a good reason to make it this year. 🙂

  15. July 8, 2010 12:27 pm

    I was born and raised on a farm in the mid-west. We also loose tons of soil from wind erosion. Tons of articles and books about the Dust Bowl in the mid-30’s. Modern farming techniques have lessened wind erosion, but still there is too much land left barren during storm seasons resulting in wind erosion. We all need to become good stewards of our land.

  16. July 8, 2010 12:29 pm

    great post–thanks…

  17. nleonard73 permalink
    July 8, 2010 12:40 pm

    To clarify, that’s 12,000 pounds (6 tons) of lost top soil per person per year, right?

  18. July 8, 2010 12:51 pm

    Interesting post. Yet one more thing to be depressed about.

  19. July 8, 2010 1:06 pm

    I always thought there was a difference between just dirt and top soil. When I planted something outside with my Mom the dirt we had was kind of like clay, so we had to buy some nice soil for it because it wouldn’t be enough for the flowers. You can also literally see the difference between just plain dirt, which has no moisture, and soil because the soil is moist and dark. I think a lot of people are doing gardening at home so that’s a good thing!

  20. July 8, 2010 1:08 pm

    I think this is mainly an attitude problem, and the the action needs to come from the people, not the government. Americans are notoriously reluctant about recycling in general, let alone separating their compostable waste and doing something different with it that conveniently dumping it into the same garbage bin as the rest of their trash. Here are some of the perceptions that I’ve run into: it’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s smelly, it’s a lot of work, I don’t know how to do it, I don’t want to mess with it… It will take a big shift in attitudes for people to get over their fears about composting, but I think it’s possible with more and more Americans getting more interested and connected with the sources of their food. There also needs to be an infrastructure developed that makes it possible for people to compost in larger quantities and without the hassle of everybody having their own composter. But the attitude change needs to come first!

  21. emrocks permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:15 pm

    I know all about the difference between dirt and soil. I am an avid gardener. I live in Alabama where most of our “soil” is red clay. The only vegetables that I have been able to grow in red clay are yellow crookneck squash and pumpkins so I have spent lots and lots of time creating soil for my garden. Flowers are a different story. I’ve gotten dozens of species to grow in clay. Just keep the clay loose and water frequently. Which is kind of an oxymoron because when you get it wet, it clumps.

    Good post. While there is nothing as good as veggies fresh from the garden, it’s so important to give back to the earth once you’ve finished utilizing its treasures

  22. July 8, 2010 1:17 pm

    The picture is so refreshing and the words are so sad. I hope we can start making more people recycle their food into the ground!

  23. July 8, 2010 1:24 pm

    That’s so bizarre. And kind of funny (but still sad at the same time). I always feel like I have more dirt than I know what to do with because I have two worm bins. Not to mention the fact that I mulch the leaves in my yard. You’d think with all of the yard waste stuffs collected, we’d be able to produce enough dirt to sustain our farm lands.
    Great article. Definitely going to make me think about the world differently. And I love the content of your blog too.

  24. July 8, 2010 1:27 pm

    Ode Magazine is great, eh? I subscribe to their “and now for the good news” that they send out every Monday. It’s great to have a dosage of positivity from the ‘news.’ In fact, it’s the only news that I actually DO read. 🙂

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  25. 2 Guys, 1 Blog permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:47 pm

    I’m sure this has a lot to do with the flooding lately. The erosion is only being exacerbated the climate change that’s going on.

  26. gunsofgoa permalink
    July 8, 2010 2:16 pm

    A very informative piece of work..keep up the good work. waiting for more posts..:-)

  27. July 8, 2010 2:36 pm

    That reminds me that we need to start a compost bin in our new yard.

  28. July 8, 2010 2:54 pm

    “for every unit of food we consume (grown using conventional U.S. agricultural methods), six times that amount of topsoil is lost. By the U.S. Food and Drug administration that’s roughly 12,000 pounds of topsoil a year.”
    This doesn’t make sense to me. If we lose six units of topsoil for every one unit of food we consume and we lose 12,000 pounds of topsoil a year, that would mean we consume 2,000 pounds of food per year. Is that per person, per family or what?

  29. July 8, 2010 2:56 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  30. July 8, 2010 4:09 pm

    Thanks for this interesting post. I’m wondering, do you have a source for the 19% increase in seed sales figure?

    Yes, this is good news!

  31. July 8, 2010 4:11 pm

    Excellent reminder of how important soil is.

    I’m not really surprised to hear that we’re losing it.

  32. July 8, 2010 4:45 pm

    Thanks for this important article too, soil is the source of all life. Without good soil we, the animals and the plants can’t live on this amazing planet. Unfortunately mankind spoils it and fertalizing it with bad and chemical, manipulated fertalizers. Thanks for informing us all.

  33. solutions12345 permalink
    July 8, 2010 5:08 pm

    Thanks for the research you put into this article. I have been doing research to find out what exactly can be done to help this. I Believe there are many solutions. My company provides a few, but we believe responsibility is where it starts and home gardening is another great help. This great country can’t keep raping Mother Earth and expect it to keep producing.

    Rob B.

    Solutions Unlimited

  34. July 8, 2010 5:40 pm

    Nice post. We are also losing many other resource given by our earthmother, so I think we should save these valuable resource for ourselves and remain enough for the next generation.

  35. April permalink
    July 8, 2010 5:41 pm

    There is actually more soil gone than this post suggests. Many figures occur, depending on which region and type of farming you look at. Conventional farming does take out a lot, but mass scale farming does even worse damage with not just soil loss but soil destruction. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are turning soil to dirt, rendering many farms virtually useless in only a decade. In my region this has become a huge issue, so the farmers decided to stop using pesticides for awhile. Also, genetically engineered crops (which we shouldn’t be eating anyway) are a huge culprit in the chemical war on soil.

    North America is becoming a wasteland if we don’t get educated and act. We don’t have a farming problem: we have a farming crisis, and those in the city may be well informed to start growing your own food now as you may have to in only 5-10 years. I’m not trying to scare anyone – I’m just keeping it real. I’m in this all day long….

  36. July 8, 2010 6:20 pm

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Great post about the importance of replenishing and sustaining one of our most important resources. Thank you for helping raise awareness about it!

    I’m passing along the link for the article, it’s one we all could learn from by reading and heeding.

  37. July 8, 2010 6:25 pm

    Very interesting! And the “soil” you buy is not nice either. It’s amazing. The whole world it is ‘a changing!! Maybe in our life time we will reclaim it?!? I hope so. . .

  38. blogideologic permalink
    July 8, 2010 6:57 pm

    Great blog!

  39. July 8, 2010 7:40 pm

    nice post thank you. And I like your photos!

  40. July 8, 2010 9:08 pm

    “Somebody told me it was frightening how much topsoil we are losing each year, but I told that story around the campfire and nobody got scared.”
    – Jack Handy

  41. Leon Breaux permalink
    July 8, 2010 9:32 pm

    Great site. Not to be too depressing, but I’d like to add in the name of general awareness that the Mississippi River dumps tremendous amounts of soil and agricultural chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico due to current industrial agriculture practices, resulting in a “dead zone” the size of New Jersey….

  42. July 8, 2010 9:39 pm

    Interesting, damn human beings. I thought soil would keep being available. Tress insects aniuamsl die which enrich the soil, right?

  43. July 8, 2010 9:51 pm

    thanks for raising awareness. i’m working in agriculture development in tanzania, east africa, and this is one of our largest problems here. the locals lose much of their top layers of soil each rainy season, and it’s hurting their abilities to produce enough food for their families and neighbors. what could be used as mulch, and to protect the soil from disappearing is usually burned off the field at the end of each harvest season. we plan to teach some no-till farming methods here in hopes that it will help in solving this (and many other) problem(s).

  44. Reggie permalink
    July 8, 2010 10:53 pm

    I like your article. Dirt on the other hand can become a part of the soil and be useful when swept away from the buildings and into the farms.

  45. July 9, 2010 12:01 am

    I used this site today to learn the soil in my yard is a typic torrifluvent.

    Indeed soil is more than dirt!

  46. July 9, 2010 3:20 am

    Found out new things here. I never knew we’re losing the soil which is vital to preserve life on the planet.

  47. July 9, 2010 3:24 am

    Good post! I blogged about this from a British angle a year ago here and I don’t think much has been done about it since from a governmental perspective…

  48. July 9, 2010 3:39 am

    That’s really interesting, quite thought-provoking that this world is using so many unsustainable sources to run, thankfully a lot of us are doing our bit, but we need more, thank you for ending on a positive though!

    Really good post

  49. blackwatertown permalink
    July 9, 2010 4:20 am

    It’s an interesting suggestion that changing the word used to name a substance can change our attitudes. Noise/Sound. Waste ground/Meadow. Swamp/Habitat.

  50. July 9, 2010 5:26 am

    It’s a good thing you posted this. Many people are not aware of this. Go Green everyone!!!!

  51. July 9, 2010 6:00 am

    Good post.Thank you fir unterest post.

  52. July 9, 2010 6:50 am

    Great post! Thanks for reminding us of this critical issue. 🙂

  53. July 9, 2010 6:54 am

    Best natural fertiliser I know of is used coffee grounds. The best part (or worst depending on your point of view), is that hundreds of tonnes of it is getting thrown into landfill each day, and your local cafes would be more than happy to give you as much as you can take. We can all make a change, even if its a kilo of coffee grounds into your compost bin each week.

  54. July 9, 2010 7:19 am

    Actually, the original meaning of “dirt” is “mud, dirt, dung” (, so your high-school teacher was not entirely correct.

    (“Soil”, in turn, is eventually from the Latin “solium”/”seat”, going over an Anglo-French word for “piece of ground, place”, according to

  55. enleuk permalink
    July 9, 2010 7:34 am

    The difference between soil and dirt is that soil is made up of organic materials, dead plants and animals and waste-products, while dirt is sand, rock, dust, which are silicon-compounds. Soil is only the thin layer on the surface. Silicon-compounds make up half the earth. Iron makes up the core. Organic materials are a limited resource, but more importantly, it’s what life, including you and me, are made from. That’s why it’s so important to understand how to manage it. In my view, it’d be best to separate the human feeding system from the carbon-cycle, excluding the atmosphere. Basically, we grow all our food in cities and leave the rest of nature, including all farm land, to the wildlife. We manage our waste to keep it inside the cities in a closed system and make more food out of it. Water, oxygen and carbondioxide going in and out of the cities must be clean. To minimize the impact on “nature”, we grow food vertically in pyramid green house-cities, each green house housing millions. The outside wild country will still be available to us, but we’d be tourists and conservationists rather than consumers of it.

    I wrote a post on oil and silicon offering a similar solution to the energy problem:

  56. July 9, 2010 8:46 am

    Thanks fo sharing this post!

  57. July 9, 2010 9:34 am

    yes. nice post. we should do our part in preserving earth!

  58. July 9, 2010 9:57 am

    It’s interesting port.Thank you.

  59. Songbird permalink
    July 10, 2010 2:48 am

    So not only are we running out of oil, rainforests and clean air- now we also have to worry about dirt. I actually had no idea!!

  60. Kati permalink
    July 12, 2010 1:59 am

    I love this post!! It’s very interesting and is a simple concept that everyone needs to know! As a chef that always looks for more sustainable ways to live and cook I find this and your other blogs totally awesome!!!
    Keep it up!

  61. July 15, 2010 4:32 am

    the picture looks so lovely! Iike it and good post !thanks for sharing!

  62. July 21, 2010 10:31 pm

    Yep. Soil really is more than just dirt. Without it, we’d all probably be aquatic creatures, not that I have a problem with that. It may seem ridiculous that we’d run out of soil but it is true. It’s a lot harder for farmers now to grow crops. Not all are aware of alternating the crops so the soil’s richness and nutrients are maintained. And all the quarrying and such is contributing to the destruction. We are slowly killing the planet and in the process, ourselves.

  63. September 26, 2011 3:50 am

    The germination of seeds, loving picture.


  1. Call it dirt or soil, we’re losing it « Second Langage's Blog

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