Protecting Our Environment

6 Dirty Little Secrets About Soil

If you’ve ever seen Survivor, you’d know that without fire, water, shelter, and a little bit of rice, you wouldn’t even make it to the first challenge, let alone a shot at a million bucks and the “Sole Survivor” crown. But here’s a dirty little secret: Without soil, there would be no humans left to play the game (and not just Survivor — any game). Because soil is literally a building block of life. Without it, we’re all voted out.

So here’s a list of cool facts about soil that may make you rethink how much how credit it deserves in keeping us all in the game of life.

Dirt and Soil are Totally Different.

Soil is like a rich, vibrant city. Dirt is like a barren ghost town. Soil is an ecosystem brimming with life. In fact, it’s literally the foundation for life on this planet. Dirt is just particles, without any life. We need healthy soil (and lots of it) to grow all the food we eat, cycle the water supply, and reduce greenhouse gases. And if you’re five, obviously you also need it to hurl mud pies at your enemies.

Soil Contains Tiny Universes with Big Impact.

If you put a teaspoon of soil under a powerful microscope (you know, as you do), it may look like an alien coral reef on a distant advanced planet. It is that weird. Because a teaspoon of soil can contain up to a billion microorganisms. Soil is also made up of mineral particles; organic matter made up of decomposing plant and animal tissues; living things, such as worms, fungi, insects, and microscopic creatures; water, which healthy soil soaks up like a sponge; and gas, created by chemical reactions in the soil. Healthy soils have bacteria helpers that turn chemicals in the atmosphere — like phosphorus or nitrogen — into stuff plants can use.

Quality Time with Soil Might Make You Happier.

Getting your hands dirty may actually improve your mood. Studies show that a microorganism found in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, acts as a sort of antidepressant when it enters the body. It has been shown to increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, as well as improve cognitive functions. So, getting down and dirty will not only yield flowers and tomatoes, it’s a nice alternative to downing an ice cream pint and binge-watching Law and Order.

It Takes 500 Years or More to Make an Inch of Soil.

You think watching paint dry is the most boring thing on earth? Um, no. It’s watching the earth turn itself into soil. So. Boring. Because it takes so long to make soil, it’s considered a non-renewable resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And it’s not like we can just whip up a fresh batch — we have to wait for slooooow geological processes to do their thing (here’s a great step-by-step breakdown). So the next time someone is taking forever to order tacos in front of you, just say to your buddy, “This is like watching an inch of soil being made.” C’mon, we’re trying to make this a thing.

If We Continue to Lose Soil, We’re in Big Trouble.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, we’ve lost half of the topsoil on the planet in the last 150 years. In 2015, a Senior UN official reported that if soil continued to degrade at the current rate, we’d only have adequate soil around the world for another 60 years. That’s, like, one Jeff Goldblum away from disaster. So, what happens if we don’t have enough healthy soil? No soil, no crops, no food, no ... well, you get the idea.

Soil Science Superheroes Are Fighting to Feed the Planet.

Scientists are aggressively studying the biologicals in soil — bacteria, fungi, and other organisms — that help crops grow. For example, Bayer scientists have some new BFFs: bacteria that do helpful things like support healthy plant roots, improve plants access to nutrients, suppress damaging nematodes (tiny worms that feed on plant roots) and prevent new nematodes from hatching. These biologicals (beneficial microorganisms) are something like the probiotics you see in the grocery story, but for plants. Bayer scientists have seen that introducing biologicals into soil doesn’t just increase crop growth; it makes plants healthier, which makes our food better. This also begs the question: should scientists wear capes and masks?

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Great! Now I have to worry about soil on top of everything else!” We feel you. But here’s the good news: Everyone can do a little bit in helping to conserve precious soil. From soil-protecting landscape improvements like rain gardens and avoiding impervious surfaces, to planting windbreaks and protecting wetlands, we all have options. Can you dig it? (c’mon — it had to be done).