A Very Dirty Story

Soil: It’s what made dinner.

National Geographic gives the glossy cover story treatment to a subject that writer Charles C. Mann admits is what journalists call MEGO: My eyes glaze over. But soil is what underlies—pun half-intended—everything: As a soil scientist at Ohio State says, “Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil.”

Zero points to anyone who thought the story was about what a great job we’re doing taking care of our soil. As Mann writes, “Connoisseurs of human fecklessness will appreciate that even as humankind is ratchetting up its demands on soil, we are destroying it faster than ever before.” But it isn’t all bad news, although the accompanying story on Haitian soils is hard reading.

For instance, Mann reports on terra preta, a man-made soil found in the Amazon that dates from before Europeans arrived. It’s astonishingly rich and mysterious: No one knows how it was created. At an agricultural research agency in Brazil, scientists have planted “rice, corn, manioc, beans, you name it” on plots of terra preta, says a soil scientist there. “It was all just what you’re not supposed to do in the tropics—annual crops, completely exposed to sun and rain. It’s as if we were trying to ruin it, and we haven’t succeeded!”

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