Nature operates using a closed loop system. Everything is recycled, reused, reincarnated. Once upon a time, humans functioned in a similar manner — that was when they were more tangibly a part of nature — making sure nothing was wasted. The moment we began to see ourselves as entities separate from nature, things began to fall apart.
Industrial agriculture, the bane of healthy soil
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in agriculture. So much of our health is tied to what we grow and how we grow it. Unfortunately, modern, industrial agriculture is far removed from nature or its systems. As a result, many health problems — some immediate, some that emerge over time — have begun to plague our species. In some places where forests have been converted to agricultural land the soil has lost the carbon it had been sequestering for generations. In such cases, parasites called strongyloides begin to invade the body through the skin and make their way to the intestines. Dried out soil that hasn’t been treated lovingly by farmers can lead to additional problems when fungi that belongs below the ground becomes airborne and transmits diseases like valley fever, cholera, and fungal meningitis.
And, of course, in places where Western, industrial agriculture is practised and heavy amounts of pesticides are used, the soil and the groundwater system become polluted leading to all sorts of problems ranging from hormonal imbalances to increased cancer incidence rates. On a more basic level, when industrial agriculture is the norm, slowly over time the soil becomes depleted of its nutrients — nutrients that a generation ago would be passed on to the fruits and vegetables growing in it.
Human health is linked to soil health
Generally speaking, in places where soil health has diminished, so has human health. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we see ourselves as a part of nature, of the soil, and treat it with loving kindness then soil can be a source of nutrition and health. For example, antibiotics, most famously penicillin, was discovered by studying the soil. Many scientists continue to study the ground beneath our feet for other medical marvels.
It makes sense that humans look to the soil to search for answers to health conditions. The soil’s ecosystem itself is able to filter and clean both water and air. If there is a virus in the water, it gets absorbed by the soil and then purified by it as well. But this can only happen if that soil is rich in microorganisms. Soil microbes have the capacity to clean up polluted land by helping to decompose anything polluting the land and changing its basic characteristics to a substance that is no longer toxic.
Compost replenishes soil nutrients
This same logic applies to the soil around our homes — in our gardens — making a home for the trees on our streets and in our parks, as well as in our forests and on our farms. The soil can only be a rich, healthful resource if we treat it well. That means we have to feed it rich, nutritious compost that helps replenish the soil’s microbes and nutrients. It’s a karmic cycle: only if we are generous to the soil will it be available to us as a resource. And the primary way to that is by composting!
My composting story
I began composting because I wanted to contribute less waste to the landfills. In the beginning I saw it as related to segregation — comparable to taking my dry waste to the Dry Waste Collection Centre each month for recycling. But once I started composting my motivation shifted. I still believed in reducing my waste, but I began to see that what I called my ‘food waste’ wasn’t really waste at all: it was a treasure trove!
Hooked to composting
Watching carrot shavings and banana peels become food for micro (and some not so micro) organisms, become a rich, decadent dessert for plants and trees in my neighbourhood was revelatory. I had never observed a natural process so closely before. And it seemed magical to me. The process of first seeing the colour change, then the shape, then the smell and texture, and then the colour again was fascinating. I had a front row seat to nature’s brilliant method of turning death into life again.
Learning about the crucial role of soil in the food we eat
I wanted to see the whole life cycle in action so I began a garden. First I planted a few flowers and vegetables in the tiny patch of garden in the front yard. Then I expanded my operations to my terrace and planted an entire salad bowl’s worth of vegetables. Mixing the compost with the red, clay soil of the city of Bengaluru and planting seeds that sprouted so quickly made me convinced that humans must participate in facilitating nature’s cycles. It wasn’t just the delicious tomatoes and okra (bhindi) that tasted so radically different to those bought from the supermarkets or even the vegetable bazaars. It was that I began to enjoy all the creatures — lizards, butterflies, frogs, birds, maggots, ants and a lot of insects whose names I don’t know — that this process of composting and gardening enabled. It was also learning about the crucial role of the soil in this process.
Growing rich soil, giving back to nature
The more I read about soil, the more I understood how composting enabled me to do more than enjoy my little plot of land and all that it could grow. I also learned that composting helped me to counteract the proliferation of CO2 in the air by sequestering carbon in the earth. And I wanted to create space for these processes and creatures — so much so that I decided I didn’t mind so much if I had to share my spinach with the caterpillars hanging out below the leaves. Ultimately really what I grew to enjoy the most was growing rich soil, knowing that that over 1 billion creatures call it home. Knowing that all of this was larger than me.
Pledge to compost
Read more about converting your kitchen waste to black gold at Daily Dump – Compost at home. For more information on how to start composting immediately please e-mail Vijay Lal at email@example.com or call +91 9810082910.
Rachel Cernansky, “The Tiny Critters Beneath Our Feet Keep Us Healthy,” TakePart
Jim Robbins, “The Hidden World Under Our Feet,” The New York Times
Sanjay Pandey, “On the Cancer Train of India’s pesticides,” Al Jazeera (English)
Al Jazeera English, “Cancer & the future of food,” Pesticide Action Network
Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss, “Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?,” Scientific American
Michael Pollan, “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs,” The New York Times