The International Year of Soils 2015


Thomas Jefferson believed, “…civilization itself rests upon the soil.” On the campus of the University of Illinois on the front of the Agriculture Building is an inscription attributed to Andrew Sloan Draper, President of the institution between 1894 and 1904. It reads: The Wealth of Illinois is in her soil, and her strength lies in its intelligent development. It is reasonable to suggest that Illinois be replaced with the United States, even Earth, without altering the intended message of the statement. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opined, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” The very fine documentary dirt! The Movie begins with, “Of all the known planets in all of the galaxies in the universe only one has a living breathing skin called dirt.”


So, it seems to me to be entirely appropriate that three years ago, the United Nations General Assembly named 2015 as the International Year of Soils; however, if Jefferson, Draper, and Roosevelt were correct, then perhaps the notion of Earth Day, Everyday should be applied to soils. Namely, every year should be the International Year of Soils!

Actually, it may be argued that the action of the UN is somewhat late. More than 25 years ago, an international group of scientists specifically trained in soil science as part of an agreement with the United National Environment Programme investigated the status of soil degradation on nearly 32 billion acres of land. It based its assessment on “changes in agricultural suitability.” It grouped soils into four categories based on the extent of the degradation:

• Light: The terrain has somewhat reduced agricultural suitability, but is suitable for use in local farming systems. Restoration to full productivity is possible by modifications of the management system. Original biotic functions are still largely intact.
• Moderate: The terrain bas greatly reduced agricultural productivity but is still suitable for use in local farming systems. Major improvements are required to restore productivity. Original biotic functions are partially destroyed.
• Strong: The terrain is non reclaimable at farm level. Major engineering works are required for terrain restoration. Original biotic functions are largely destroyed.
• Extreme: The terrain is irreclaimable and beyond restoration. Original biotic functions are fully destroyed.

The group presented its findings in a report released in 1991. In that report, it concluded that of the samples of the 32 billion acres assessed, some level of reduced agricultural suitability was evident on roughly 5 billion acres (14%). That is an area roughly the size of the continental United States and China combined! Of the samples where degraded soils were found, 38% (1.8 billion acres) exhibited light degradation, 46% (2.2 billion acres) exhibited moderate degradation, 15% (730 million acres) exhibited strong degradation, and 1% (22 million acres) exhibited extreme degradation.

It has long been known that the best way of sustaining the health and vigor of soil is by restoring nutrients to it. Over 2,500 years ago, Greek philosopher Xenophanes recognized, “For all things come from earth, and all things end by becoming earth.” Only by composting uneaten food and using the compost as a soil amendment do we conform to this ancient reality. It is vital that the practice of recovery and composting of uneaten food, especially locally or even better on-site, become the established norm. By recovering the cornucopia of nutrients found in what is discarded and returning them to the soil, we will reconcile our relationship with this precious natural resource, provide an opportunity for improved resilience of the soil system, and create a sustainable model of ecosystem services offered by healthy soil.

There is an old aboriginal saying from peoples in Southeast Asia: if you take nature as your teacher, you will never be wrong. That is the foundation of the FOR Solutions systems! The human body is capable of digesting an entire Thanksgiving gorging in less than 24 hours. So, any composting technology that takes months to digest what nature has demonstrated may be digested in a day is probably not taking its cues from nature. When it comes to leaves, twigs, branches, and other plant debris, nature often takes several seasons to recycle that matter. Not so, when it comes to food substances. Fruits and vegetables often begin the process of recycling before they are even harvested. There is no waste in nature and timing is everything. No potentially useful storehouse of nutrients is allowed to whither on the vine for any longer than the absolute shortest period necessary to complete the task of recycling the matter for its next use. Nature is too efficient for that!

FOR Solutions patented aerobic in-vessel rotary drum composting technology takes its cues from nature. Our volume-reducing shredder represents our teeth, which crush, cut, and grind our food in preparation for further digestion. Our enclosed screw auger represents our esophagus, which efficiently conveys the shredded food and organics to the next step of digestion. Our rotary drum represents our stomach and intestines. We don’t need to introduce any bacteria to breakdown the food, because they are already in it! We don’t need to introduce any enzymes either because nature has already designed our bodies to provide that service, which is why they are more efficient than composting systems. Very important is that our bodies do not simply use enzymes or genetically modified bacteria to liquefy what we eat so that all we discharge is waste water! Our discharge port represents, well, I’m sure you get the idea!

Recovery and composting of uneaten food is perhaps the most quintessential example of sustainability in action, but only if we follow nature’s cues and do it as she has for billions of years. Human ingenuity has allowed us to exploit more fully nature’s strategy for utilizing the nutrients in uneaten food through the process of composting. By creating optimal environments for microbes to perform the digestion, such as in a FOR Solutions aerobic in-vessel rotary drum system, we are poised to advance a more sustainable management strategy for uneaten food.