By Eliane Hauri

The soil is a living thing, an essential common good where the path of our food starts, which I would like clean “from farm-to-fork” for the sake of human health as well as the health of the planet.

I became interested in soils around 2012 when I was still living in Europe and witnessed how a French scientific couple, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, became famous in ecology circles for the fórmulas shock they used in their interviews. Claude and Lydia used to start their statements with: “Soils are dead. We have massacred them; it is already a desert what we have. Tilling the soil never has to be done; soil has been raped” (Jeunehomme, 2017).

One question I remember from my first classes in agronomy was: is the soil a living thing? I answered: yes, it is. As a result of this couple, I got interested in this topic, which is of great importance not only for agriculture, but also for biodiversity as a whole.

The UN General Assembly declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils (1) and the FAO defined its importance in its publication of that year on “Soils and Biodiversity”: “Soil is one of nature’s most complex ecosystems and one of the most diverse habitats on earth: it contains a myriad of different organisms, which interact and contribute to the global cycles that  make  all  life  possible.  Nowhere  in  nature  are  species  so  densely  packed  as  in  soil communities;  however,  this  biodiversity  is  little  known  as  it  is  underground  and  largely invisible to the human eye.” (2)

The importance of soils

To understand the importance of soils, I thought it would be interesting to take as a reference one of the publications of the international Slow Food movement, dedicated above all to promote  good  food.  Founded  in  the  1980s  by  the  Italian  Carlo  Petrini  with  the  aim  of defending regional traditions that now exist in more than 160 countries. This movement has evolved to incorporate a “global approach to food that recognizes the strong relationships between our food, culture and our planet”. (3)

The movement’s motto is “Good, Clean and Fair”

Food has to be tasty and in-season fresh, becoming part of the local culture; it has to be clean through a process that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or human health; and fair in terms of remuneration for producers and affordable prices for consumers. (4)  As such, we understand that everything is a cycle, which starts from the soil and ends at the final point, namely your plate and fork.

A  study  on  the  importance  of  soils  was  published  by  Slow  Food  in  2016  and  in  its  introduction the author declares: “Soil is the only environmental compartment in which all the other environmental compartments simultaneously meet, interact and interface with each other. Indeed, soil is a fundamental and irreproducible natural resource on which all the planet’s life depends. For too long, soil has been considered an inert material, reduced to a simple support for rowing crops, with no consideration of its. It is treated aggressively, without taking into account its complexity or thinking about the risks to biodiversity at the microflora and microfauna level, not to mention environmental equilibriums.” (Messa, 2016)  (5)

According to the analyst, Marta Messa, it is stated that soil delivers around 99% of global food  supplies  for  human  consumption,  filters  rainwater  that  returns  it  clean  and  potable,  regulates the climate and is an essential reserve of both organic carbon and biodiversity. (6)

However, despite its immense value to humanity, soil is under threat. “Soil is today subject to  many  processes  of  rapid  degradation—erosion,  contamination,  salinization,  sealing,etc.—many of which are directly or indirectly caused by human activities.” (7)

How did these threats to the soil begin?

As Dr. Vandana Shiva, ecologist and food sovereignty advocate recalls, the industrialization of agriculture after the two European world wars happened because the arms industry was reoriented to produce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In fact, these wars were catalysts for the incipient chemical industry. In 1913, the synthesis of nitrogen from air made it possible  not  only  to  produce  explosives,  but  also  nitrogen  fertilizers  (Shiva,  2016).

(According  to  Slow  Food,  precisely,  worldwide,  nitrogen  accounts  for  74%  of  mineral fertilizer use; in some countries this figure is as high as 90%, along with the potential effects to the environment implied by this value). (8)

Similarly, it is known how the U.S. spread the famous herbicide and defoliant “agent orange” over the jungle during the Vietnam War to kill it, as well as the crops in the area, to ultimately kill the Vietnamese populations and soldiers. (9) The ingredients of “agent orange” were manufactured by the Monsanto company, (now MonsantoBayer), well-known for its sale of transgenic seeds. The herbicide “Agent Orange” was part of the chemical warfare program used by the United States.  (10)

Nitrogen in Soils

During  the  20th  century,  air-based  nitrogen  synthesis,  which  allowed  the  production  of explosives as well as nitrogen fertilizers, led to an excess of nitrogen, which caused serious soil  deterioration.  Excessive  nitrogen  in  soils  prevents  plant  roots  from  releasing nutrients for microorganisms. (11) 

“Maximum nitrogen values are reached in areas where factory farming is practiced, fruit and vegetables are cultivated industrially or grain is produced with excessive fertilization.” (12)

“The  largest  use  of  nitrogen  compounds  in  Europe  is  to  make  fertilizers  used  in  areas dedicated to grow fodder crops for animals. The roots of the crops do not take up all of the nitrogen from the fertilizers applied to the field. Then, when the fodder is fed to livestock, the animals do not absorb all the nitrogen it contains and expel it in their urine and dung.” Marta Messa, Slow Food’s analyst, describes how an excess of nitrogen (often in the form of nitrate)  may  be  washed  into  rivers  and  leached  from  the  soil  into  underground  water, contaminating  sources  of  drinking  water  and  damaging  aquatic  and  marine  ecosystems. Furthermore, excess nitrogen in the soil leads to an increase in the mineralization of organic matter, which in turn leads to an increased loss of carbon from soils. The use of synthetic fertilizers has greatly contributed to the impoverishment of the soil and has caused a drastic depletion of the essential organic matter that is needed.

Soil Degradation and Climate Change

According  to  Messa,  “one  of  the  most  serious  consequences  of  the  application  of  the industrial  agricultural  model  is  the  fundamental  and  generally  ignored  contribution  to climate change, which in turn becomes a generator of further deterioration and accelerates desertification. Climate and soil are closely connected: the climate affects soil formation and soil in turn affects the composition of the atmosphere, in particular the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases. (15)

This Slow Food study, which recognizes the health of the soil and crops as a whole, states that:  “Soil  contains  more  carbon  than  the  atmosphere  and  all  terrestrial  vegetation combined. Relatively small changes to the amount of organic matter in the soil can have significant effects on the atmosphere and global warming. Of course, we can understand how climate change is a serious threat to global food security” (16)

Industrial agriculture and soils

The  so-called  “Green  Revolution”  of  the  1970’s,  an  agricultural  revolution  of  the  20th century,  encouraged  uniformity  and  agricultural  over-productivity,  which  dramatically increased the production and profitability. Such “Revolution” was a “process of development and expansion of high productivity seeds and agricultural techniques in several Third World countries during the 1960s and early 1970s, under the impulse of an FAO plan.” (Due Process Foundation, 2017)

The  “Green  Revolution”  prompted  the  implementation  of  intensive  agriculture  through monocultures (Carrera Ríos & Kucharz, 2006). As a result, monocultures have depleted the world’s soils by relying on a scarce number of varieties to only respond on the needs of the world market and not to respond to the needs of producing  food  for  the  majority  of  the  planet  (Expansion  of  large-scale  monocultures endangers small-scale agriculture in LA, 2014).

In  Guatemala,  the  large  monocultures  we  know,  such  as  sugarcane,  require  significant amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, harmful not only to health but also to the environment. (17)

 The situation in Guatemala

According to researcher José Miguel Leiva Pérez, soil conservation does not currently have any priority in Guatemala within agricultural production and natural resource protection strategies, despite the fact that annual national average soil loss in the country due to erosion reaches 148 million tons (Leiva Pérez, 2016).

As reported by the Institute of Agriculture; Natural Resources and Environment (IARNA) within its 2014 study regarding the profile of agriculture and rurality in Guatemala, there are 37% of the country’s surface area that is used below its maximum potential. Meanwhile, 15% of the country’s surface area is used for activities that exceed its capacity. An estimated 148 million tons of soil can be lost in that percentage of the country’s surface due to intensity of use and erosion. The IARNA indicates that even in properly used lands erosion potential exists.

Aspects such as deforestation are linked to the erosion process. Deforestation and climatically unsustainable agricultural and livestock activities are among the most important causes of soil  loss  and  degradation  in  Guatemala.  And  as  we  may  have  already  understood, agriculture is the activity that represents the highest percentage of potential erosion due to land overuse (Leiva Pérez, Pérdida acelerada de tierras agrícolas en Guatemala, Programa de Cambio Climático, Facultad de Agronomía, USAC, 2017).

Leiva Pérez states that the country’s vulnerability to the phenomenon of climate change is evident,  which  is  accelerating  the  processes  of  drought  and  land  degradation  within Guatemala. The loss of agricultural soils and the overall erosion of land exposes a significant number of the country’s rural population to processes of food insecurity. (18)

According  to  this  author,  the  country  does  not  have  any  legal  regulations  that  address sustainable land management, especially in terms of soil conservation and rehabilitation.

In  conclusion,  it  is  hoped  that  we  understand  how  everything  is  a  circle  that  has  to  be respected  and  realize  that,  from  our  food  and  consumption,  the  impact  on  climate, biodiversity and soil, our common good, is of great importance.

Dear readers, I hope this article raised some awareness and curiosity about the origins of the food on your plate, beginning with the soil itself until it reaches your kitchen.


Carrera Ríos, B., & Kucharz, T. (noviembre de 2006). Las insostenibilidad de los monocultivos agro-industriales. Obtenido de

Expansión de monocultivos a gran escala pone en peligro la pequeña agricultura en AL. (abril de 2014). Obtenido de

Fundación para el Debido Proceso DPLF). (septiembre de 2017). Organizaciones de Centroamérica denuncian ante la CIDH impacto de monocultivos y agrotóxicos en los derechos humanos. Obtenido de

Galvez, J. A. (2014). Perfil del agro y la ruralidad de Guatemala: situación actual y tendencias. Universidad Rafael Landívar. Instituto de Agricultura; Recursos Naturales y Ambiente (IARNA). Guatemala Ciudad: Cara Parens: IICA.

Gutierrez, J. (s.f.). Revolución verde. Obtenido de

Jeunehomme, A. (2017). Lydia et Emmanuel Bourguignon. Obtenido de

José Miguel, L. P. (agosto de 2016). La degradación de las tierras agrícolas en Guatemala. Obtenido de

José Miguel, L. P. (2017). Pérdida acelerada de tierras agrícolas en Guatemala, Programa de Cambio Climático, Facultad de Agronomía, USAC. Obtenido de

Messa, Marta. (2016). El suelo, Análisis de Slow Food. Obtenido de:

Shiva, V. (2016). Monsanto Merges with Bayer, “Their Expertise is War”. Shady Historical Origins, IG Farben, Part of Hitler’s Chemical Genetic Engineering Cartel, Global Research, Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG). Obtenido de:

Suelos y Biodiversidad. Los suelos albergan una cuarta parte de la biodiversidad de nuestro planeta. (2015). Obtenido de: