• Question: Does our world need soil? Can't we just make soil with chemicals( Science )?

    Asked by 344sscb34 to Mark, Keegan, Clay, Ana, Alex on 3 May 2016.
    • Photo: Clay Robinson

      Clay Robinson answered on 3 May 2016:

      Absolutely! and Absolutely not!

      Not only does the world need soil, YOU need soil.
      Soil is the foundation of every terrestrial (land) ecosystem. Soil supports life, provides materials for your food and clothes, purifies water and provides air for you to breathe (because plants grow in the soil). It does so many other things.
      Everything in the ecosystem and biome is interconnected. The soil is the foundation. Microorganisms live in the soil (more in a handful than people on the planet). Plants grow in the soil. Both provide food for larger organisms and animals.
      Without soil, all these systems would fail, and life, as we know it, would cease. There would be mass famine and starvation. Millions, maybe even billions of people would die.
      To get a quick look at why soil is so important to you, check out this video.

      Soil scientists understand that soil forms from 5 interacting forces that include Climate, Organisms (plants and animals), Relief (shape of the landscape and position on it), Parent materials (the stuff in which soil forms), and Time (how long the soil has had to form). We call these ClORPT for short. As such, soil is a slowly-renewable (not in our lifetime) resource, and every year there is less arable soil (soil we can use to grow crops) because of natural processes that degrade it such as erosion and desertification, and because of natural processes accelerated by human activities such as erosion, acidification and salinization, and because every year people build more shopping malls, housing developments, factories, parking lots, and other things. Most of these are built on land that was once used to produce crops.
      Even though terra-forming is cool in a sci-fi movie, There are two reasons we cannot just make soils with science: Time and Scale.
      Time: Depending upon the age and stability of the landscape surface (how long it has been there without being buried, washed away, or blown away), soils may only be a few centuries old to maybe 10 thousands of years. All those factors interact as water moves through the soil, plants grow, die, and decompose, and are eaten by organisms that grow, die, and decompose, and more water moves through the soil, and the process goes on and on and on. These are the things that form a soil. Soil is not just some jumbled combination of minerals that were weathered from rocks or synthesized in a lab.
      Scale: Even if we could make soil in a lab with chemicals and science, think about it, how much soil would be needed to grow enough food and fiber and lumber to feed, clothe, and shelter the 7.4 or so billion people on the planet?
      Watch this video to get an idea of the scale of soil you would need to make.