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Tending the garden: A look at stewardship in the Year of Soils

For dust we are and to dust we will return.” The Hebrew word for dust found in Genesis 3:19 and later in Ecclesiastes 3:20 is aphar, different than the Hebrew word abaq which refers to a fine dust or a light, volatile particle. The word aphar is defined as something with more substance like clay, mud, mortar or ground. 

Scientists have identified that 13 key elements of the human body are found in dirt or soil. In November 2013, Cornell University released findings that they said could help unravel the mystery of the origins of the human body – they discovered that clay formed a hydrogel that enhanced protein production. Their press release stated that although this may explain how the biomolecules found in the human body were produced, how these biomolecules came together to form complex structures still needs to be explained. 

It is humorous to hear researchers announce a new discovery when their breakthrough only confirms what was revealed to us in the Bible over three thousand years ago. It is unfortunate that these Cornell researchers have come so far but still fail to acknowledge the Creator. 

Genesis 1:7 explains that God formed man from the aphar [the clay, dirt or mud] of the ground and breathed life into him. One of the first tasks given to man was to tend and care for the soil that he came from (Gen. 1:26; 2:15).

The Year of Soils
Growing up with our family’s seed business, I learned how to grow food and care for the soil before I could even ride a bike. We learned practical things like “don’t kill the worms” and “don’t remove all the plants in the fall; rather, leave them to decompose.” We were told to shake the dirt from each weed pulled or vegetable harvested to keep the soil in the gardens, and that watering thoroughly but less often encourages deep roots. If there were problems with plant health, I was taught to check the soil’s nutrient and pH balance. We would seed cover crops to help replace the nutrients taken from the soil. My grandfather, William Dam, stopped selling chemically treated seeds and only sold un-treated seeds and eco-friendly products long before the terms “green” and “organic” were in vogue. 

I didn’t understand the science behind it then, nor do I fully comprehend it now as organic chemistry and nanoscience are not my area of expertise. But because of my first-hand experiences as a child, I grew up thinking soil management and conservation were common knowledge. At the Christian schools I attended, my peers were also connected to the agriculture and horticulture industries so it wasn’t until taking a Nature, Literature and Cultural Theory class in university that I realized how separated our society is from food production and responsible soil management. 

In recognition of the importance of soil, the UN brought soil stewardship to the forefront by proclaiming December 5 as World Soil Day and 2015 as the International Year of Soils (IYS). According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 95 percent of our food comes from our soils, directly or indirectly. Healthy soil is full of millions of organisms, rich in organic matter and nutrients.  The FAO estimates that 33 percent of the earth’s soils are highly degraded because of erosion, compaction, acidification, salinization, chemical pollution and nutrient depletion (fao.org). Mr. Graziano da Silva, FAO Director General, believes soil is a “nearly forgotten resource” that needs investment to gain food security, nutrition and overall sustainability. 

Sustainable agriculture in developing countries
Some of the goals of IYS are to create full public awareness about the fundamental roles of soils for human life and how they contribute to food security, and to promote effective policies and action plans for sustainable management and protection of soil resources. 

NGOs like World Renew have already implemented sustainable agriculture programs. World Renew works alongside local farmers to test and adopt sustainable agriculture methods that improve soil fertility, establish drought resistant crop varieties, boost productivity and extend the growing season through small-scale irrigation. In one project in Turkana, Kenya, displaced families were taught how to grow in dry conditions. The participants were grateful for this support, thanking God for bringing World Renew to teach them how to use resources to care for the soil they were farming. 

In March 2015, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank partnered with other organizations, initiating the Good Soil Campaign to encourage Canadians and the government to continue their support of small-holder farmers in developing countries. They advocate improving small-scale farming as crucial to reducing hunger and alleviating poverty.

Conservation agriculture in Canada
We in Canada have a lot to be thankful for. Aside from an abundance of food, there are national conservation programs in place to address soil conservation. Food producers are committed to maintaining production while caring for the soil. There are also agencies in place to help fund international agricultural aid. 

We haven’t experienced a food shortage in Canada like that of the “dirty thirties.”  Nor have the prairies experienced dust storms like those during the Depression because farmers have changed their techniques to eliminate the poor land practices that contributed to the dust storms of that decade. 

According to the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, there is increasing consumer interest in food production. This public interest in how food is grown will help drive standards of sustainability forward. Likewise, producers and farmers in Canada are developing new innovations, such as low-disturbance or no-till cropping systems that help prevent soil erosion. “Soil conservation can be a key tool in long-term stewardship efforts,” says Eugene Legge, President of SCCC. “Good soil management reduces runoff from the land into water sources and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” 

But, is being thankful enough? How can we balance gratitude for God’s blessings with awareness of the excess and waste? The FAO estimates that 28 percent of agricultural lands in the world grow crops that are wasted. A 2014 report published by Value Chain International in Oakville, Ontario, estimated 31 billion dollars worth of food is wasted in Canada each year. This number is for the food alone. If labour and water resources are factored in, the total economic waste would be three times that amount. Some of the food waste comes from production and other waste happens in institutions or other food industries. Organizations like the Fraser Valley Gleaners and Ontario Christian Gleaners work to take some of this excess agricultural produce and make it available to the hungry.

Still, the report estimated that 47 percent of food waste comes from household waste – consumers are throwing away one in four produce items. In regions with effective green-bin or composting programs, the hope is that most of this waste will return to amend our soil but is that any consolation to those who experience hunger?

It is sickening to think about the waste happening here in Canada in light of all the food shortages occurring other countries. Organizations like the UN’s World Food Programme had to reduce their food provisions this September because of low funding but assert that there is enough food available in the world to supply the necessary nourishment. The WFP estimates 842 million people in the world are undernourished while Canada throws away billions of dollars worth of food each year.  

Speak up and serve
How do we address food waste? When I was a child, I had a dream of creating a system of equal global sharing of food resources. I understand now that this cannot be so simple. When looking at the inequalities in the distribution of resource, the problem can seem overwhelming. After all, these struggles will always exist until Jesus returns to redeem his creation. And Jesus even says that the poor will always be among us, right?

Let us not give in to becoming ambivalent and unresponsive. God doesn’t ask us to solve the situation, but we are called to speak up and to serve, to care for the earth and feed the hungry. We could advocate for increased Canadian government funding for international agricultural development programs. We could reduce how much food we buy and waste each year so that farmers will be able to meet increasing human food needs while responsibly sustaining the soil. Whatever steps we take, let us implement change and choose to not be part of the problem.  

  • Krista Dam-VandeKuyt lives in Jerseyville, Ont. with husband Rob and their children Ethan, Eliya and Zoë. They are members at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church.

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