Earth, water, wind and fire! The four natural elements described across many ancient beliefs and mythologies as the foundations of our world. While modern day science provides a more sophisticated understanding of how our world is composed and connected, the production of our food and fibre can still be integrally linked to those four basic elements.
In my blog Raising our voices in tune, not discord, I touched on how agriculture is underpinned by fascinating and complex science. In this series of blogs I will introduce you to some of those stories and take you on a fascinating journey of discovery, where we find out why those four elements are so important in feeding the world.
Part 1. Earth
The story begins with the amazing, living world that exists beneath our feet. This world is a dark and often mysterious place, where sunlight rarely ventures, but it is very much alive and ever changing. This is the world that is commonly known as soil.
When we skim across the soil surface we often just see dry dust, dirt or mud, but if we zoom in and look more closely we can usually see a multitude of small holes. Let’s take a deep breath, shrink in, get brave, turn on the spotlight and climb into one of these holes. As we slide down the uneven pathway we enter into a chaotic underworld city. There are building blocks of rock, gravel, sand, clay and silt particles of all different shapes and sizes. Some of those buildings look tough and strong. Bullet proof. Others are weak and incredibly fragile, looking as if they will crumble at the slightest of sneezes. The architecture is crazy and varied, but there is also a similarity in some of the patterns and consistency in the structures. A strange kind of order exists amongst it all.
Living within this city is a hugely diverse community of living things; millions of different species of arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, fungi and bacteria. There is so much mystery about this incredibly ecosystem, so much that we don’t know. But what we do know is that these societies are vital to our survival. They help to break down organic matter and turn it into vital plant food. Without them, we wouldn’t exist.
Between the building blocks are incredibly complex networks of interconnected roadways and waterways, through which the living creatures live and travel. They also act as essential supply channels for air, nutrients and water. And within and between the buildings are stores for food and water, supplying the living soil community. It is a hive of activity, an ever changing world.
Now down into this incredible city also come the roots from plants. The strong, structural roots make their way along the bigger pathways; the major highways. They lodge themselves between the building blocks and with incredible strength, form the foundation for the plants above. Imagine the structural strength required to keep one of these trees upright!
Plants then sends out finer roots in search of water, nutrients and oxygen and take up the vital supplies into the plant. This is a constant ebb and flow. Stores are depleted by the plants. Water enters the system after rainfall or irrigation. Root systems adapt accordingly. Leaf litter falls onto the ground surface and plant roots slough off old cells and grow new roots. Soil organisms break down this organic matter to release more food for the plant. Organisms dig through to make new pathways and the city evolves in a never ending cycle.
Amongst all the chaos and complexity is a beautiful yet incredibly fragile balance of life. Many of these soil cities are vibrant and healthy and support productive and sustainable agricultural systems. Others, unfortunately, are not.
Our modern Australian farmers know how important it is to preserve and protect our vibrant soil cities because they are the foundation of life on this planet. So the next time you eat a meal or get dressed, take time to say thanks for that wonderful world beneath our feet that helps to put food on our table and supply our natural fibres. And take time to say thanks to our farmers for taking care of our future!