A Lover of the Soil: Reflections on the Nature, Place and Care of Soils in God’s World
“…and he [Uzziah] had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil” (2 Chronicles 26:10).
For 10 years I had the privilege of first studying and then teaching students in agriculture the science of soils. Although the path of life God has led me upon took me away from that field of learning and teaching in 1980, it did not take away my love for the soil. It remains as strong today as ever. I still look at exposed soil profiles as I drive down highways, talk with farmers about their soils, and engage fellow travellers in conversations about soils when the opportunity arises. It is an abiding love affair.
That said, I have seldom reflected deeply on what might be called the spiritual dimension of soils – their place in the drama of creation, the Fall, and redemption, and the care that God would have us take of them. Still less have I delved into how my life in Christ should affect my attitude toward the soil and in participating in the global stewardship of them. It is this that I want to do now.
Background – My Contact with Soils and Soil Science
I was drawn to the study of soil science in the second year of my undergraduate course in agricultural science in 1970. Soil science was a compulsory course in the four-year degree. The first lecture was taken by the professor of the Soil Science Department of the College, an amiable Englishman who loved his discipline with a passion. I still recall all these years later how he told us that caring for soil was somewhat like caring for a baby. If you kept it well fed and its bottom dry, he said, it was bound to thrive. It could be made to grow anything.
However, it was not the fertility status of soil as a medium for plant growth that captivated my attention – although I was still very interested in this. Rather, it was the soil as a natural body – what it was made up of, how it functioned, why it varied and so on. This was known as the field of pedology and was foundational to knowing how to manage soil. This interest paved the way for me to study a linked series of soils known as a catena in postgraduate doctoral studies.
I first learned about soil catenas while reading about African soils in my final year of undergraduate study. In that continent, these sequences of soils stretching from hilltops to hollows were often marked by “black cotton soils” in their lower slope positions. While often extremely fertile, they were notorious for being difficult to cultivate (moisture conditions had to be just right) and often contained swelling clays that cracked during dry seasons and expanded when wet.
It was not the swelling properties of clays in the lower slope positions of African catenas that caused me to fossick out a like sequence in the acid soils of the South Island of New Zealand. Rather, it was a search for a non-crystalline aluminosilicate clay mineral called allophane. Allophane was known to exist in soils derived from volcanic parent materials, but to that point, had not been isolated and identified in those from non-volcanic parent materials. My preliminary study of the clay in volcanic soils convinced me that it was a reprecipitation product produced by natural weathering processes, theoretically making it possible for it to occur in any environment where the geochemical conditions were suitable. The variety of such environments within a short sequence in a catena of podzolized acid soils offered the promise of finding it. And, in the goodness of God, find it I did.
The process of isolating, identifying and then characterising this acid-soil allophane took me deep into the inner workings of the soil as a system, and especially into its reactive fraction. Much of my work was with the finest (clay-sized) particles of the soil and required me to use a range of chemical, x-ray, thermal and infrared techniques. During this, I came to appreciate the chemical and mineralogical features of soils, and how it is that they function in the retention and cycling of plant nutrients.
I did little work with the organic component of the soils I was studying, but since that time, I have come to appreciate the dominating influence they play on the soil as a system and on its ability to sustain plant growth. If I were to repeat those years of research, given the state of my knowledge today, I suspect that I would choose to look at the organic and biological regime of soils rather than their mineral fraction.
For 30 years after leaving university teaching to engage in pastoral ministry and theological education, I had little occasion to think about or engage with soils apart from my vegetable garden. That changed, however, after I left full-time theological teaching to return for a time to pastoral ministry in a small rural region in the southern part of New Zealand. There I encountered farmers who were confused by the multiplicity of fertiliser offerings available to them and I quickly found myself being asked to help them understand their soils and the best kind of fertilisers to use.
Added to that, even as I travelled south with my family to take up this pastoral calling, I was alerted by a long-time farmer friend to a new interest in alternative approaches to soil fertility among some New Zealand farmers. Among them was my younger brother, a former land owner but now turned farm consultant who had become interested in the philosophy of William Albrecht, the so-called “father of American soil fertility”.
Together, these factors called me (perhaps I should say “forced me”) to blow the dust off my soil science background to help those who knew little about the elementary functions of soils. This was a profoundly satisfying phase of my rural pastoral ministry and provided an occasion for integrating a Christian worldview with the practicalities of farming.
More than that, delving into the literature on soil management and sustainability, I became aware of the critical state of global soil degradation and its consequent effects on food supply and nutrition. Given New Zealand’s temperate climate, the ravages of desertification and degradation are nowhere as vividly evident as they are in other parts of the world, especially those exposed to distinct dry and rainy seasons.
This was brought home to me during a recent (2022) visit to Africa. I witnessed large areas in the early stages of desertification, and spindly sorghum crops of low nutritional value. While my reason for visiting on that occasion was related to family and theological teaching, I could not but be deeply moved by the spectacle of poor crop growth under subsistence conditions.
Consequently, it was with a measure of excitement that I very recently learned of the possibility of visiting another African nation when I return to that continent later this year. Long-time friends who had served for 13 years in Zambia prevailed on me to consider visiting that country where they have contacts with theological colleges, a Christian university, and schools of agriculture. While an exploratory visit is still pending, the possibility of helping African Christians in the fields of spiritual formation, theological education, and soil management is enormously appealing.
The Beauty of the Soil
To those whose contact with soil is limited to washing it off hands and floors, the idea that there is something beautiful about it may seem incomprehensible. Yet, as with all of God’s good creation, there is wonder and mystery and beauty tied up with the makeup and function of soil.
Typically, soils form through the breakdown (weathering) of some inorganic parent material like rock, sedimentary or alluvial deposits, volcanic ash, or windblown silt or sand. Some soils develop in organic deposits, but for the most part, they start as rock, silt or sand.
Over time, through the influence of moisture, temperature, vegetation, organisms and other factors, they gradually take on the typical topsoil-subsoil features reflecting their environment. They develop chemical, biological and physical properties all of which in some way or other affect the suitability of a soil for plant growth.
As mentioned above, recent studies have shown the critical importance of the organic fraction of the soil – both its living biology and organic residues. This component of the soil plays a dominant role in nutrient cycling and retention and physical properties such as drainage, aeration, and physical structure. It also has a great influence on the uptake of nutrients by plant roots. Understanding this system, and how God has created its myriad interactions, is a cause for wonder and praise.
Again, as mentioned earlier, my research interests during my postgraduate study centred on the fine inorganic particles in the clay fraction of soils. Here, too, is a world of beauty and wonder. Layer silicate clays like those I investigated are a major nutrient storage and retention component in soil. The flat platelets that make up these clays develop small electrostatic charges which attract and retain oppositely charged soil nutrient ions, keeping them from being flushed (leached) from the soil. Similarly, non-crystalline clay colloids like allophane can form complex associations with other nutrient ions (especially those connected with phosphorous) and may prevent these from being taken up by plants altogether.
Whether one views the soil at a macro or micro level, it is a complex, beautiful system. There is an incredible design involved, even at an atomic and molecular level, to support plant growth and consequently human and animal life.
But it is also a vulnerable system that can break down. And in recent decades, this has been happening at what many view as an alarming rate.
The Degradation of Soils
While it may seem overdramatic to think of the degradation of soil resources worldwide as “alarming”, the data produced by reputable organisations gives us cause to be deeply concerned. While as Christians, our concern must not degenerate into despair inconsistent with our belief in God’s sovereignty over all things and ultimate purposes for his world, it is proper that we should have a realistic appreciation of how serious the situation is from a human point of view.
For example, the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) established in the Netherlands late last century reported that at the end of the 20th century, 46.4% of the earth’s soils were experiencing important decreases in productivity and partially destroyed biological functions, approximately 1.9 billion hectares were significantly degraded, and approximately 9.3 million hectares were irreparably damaged and no longer had any biological activity. This data, if trustworthy, compels us to be concerned. Trends would suggest the situation could only have worsened in the intervening 20 years to the present.
Similarly, reports on global annual losses of topsoil (where most of the soil’s available nutrients are stored) cannot but awaken concern. Estimates early in this century indicate that the earth is losing topsoil at a rate of 75-100 Gt per year. It was predicted then that if soil losses continued at these rates, there was only 48 years of topsoil worldwide left. While that might be an over-statement (not all topsoil is susceptible to the same rates of loss), what can be affirmed is that topsoil is being lost at a far greater rate than it can be replenished.
It is not only topsoil that is being lost, but carbon tied up in soil organic matter that is declining. Dr William Albrecht (mentioned earlier) believed that soil organic matter is one of the most important resources of any nation and that its unwise exploitation has devastating consequences. Its decline in the USA since the European settlement has, according to Ohio State University, been dramatic. Range and cropland soils with an original organic matter content of 3-8% have been reduced to less than one-quarter of that level – sometimes to as low as 0.2%.
Then, there are well-documented reports on the decline in the nutritional quality of foods worldwide and the upsurge of mineral-deficiency-related chronic diseases. It is claimed that agricultural soils throughout the world contain between 70-85% less available minerals necessary for plant growth and animal and human health than they had 100 years ago. Closely related to that, according to USDA and British Ministry of Food statistics, our food is 30-60% lower in basic nutrients today than it was 50-60 years ago. Directly flowing from that, double Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling has argued that every sickness, disease, and ailment can be traced to a mineral deficiency of some kind. Chronic heart, respiratory, and bone ailments are all known to be associated with mineral deficiencies.
Together, these factors have and continue to limit the ability to supply sufficient and nutritionally rich food to the growing world population. Countries are losing the ability to feed themselves and ‘food security’ is a growing problem. Self-sufficiency in food production is becoming a leading issue worldwide. For example, an article in the September 2008 edition of National Geographic estimated that 854 million people worldwide suffered from food insecurity and that 3.7 billion people were suffering from malnutrition and hidden hunger – especially children.
Furthermore, it estimated that 30% more cereal grain would need to be produced to feed an estimated population of 8.3 billion by 2030. It also noted that riots and protests over food prices have broken out in 30 countries since 2007.
If these statistics are reliable, then, above all others, Christians filled with and walking in the Spirit of Christ, should be concerned. Theologian Bruce Milne has stated it well when commenting on Christ’s role as Creator (John 1:3), he wrote
Jesus Christ’s agency of creation (John 1:3) should significantly affect attitudes toward the physical universe in general, and our response to its threatened destruction in particular. While we are not to worship creation… we should certainly care about it and be actively involved in its preservation. That species are being exterminated, forests denuded, soils eroded, rivers and seas polluted and the ozone layer depleted contradicts the creative action of our Lord Jesus Christ who called all things into being. Although affected by fallenness, they remain his personal handiwork. A lack of concern for our natural environment is a sign of a limited view of Christ, or of a spirituality which is more spiritual than Jesus and in need of balance and healing.
The Regeneration and Care of Soils
While it is not the purpose of this paper to expose the human factor in soil degradation, that it has been a major contribution cannot be denied. That such agricultural practices as over-cultivation, compaction by heavy machinery, improper fertiliser programmes, poor soil moisture/irrigation management, over-grazing, poor crop rotations and residue management cannot be denied.
The development of “industrial agriculture” post-World War II has contributed in a major way to this. The so-called “Green Revolution” that followed the mass production of chemical fertilisers from the 1940s onward gave rise to high-yielding monoculture agriculture, widespread dependence on chemical fertilisers, irrigation, and heavy machinery, plant breeding programmes that produced genetic modifications able to cope with changing soil conditions, and the proliferation of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides for weed and pest control.
Without seeing this as a reason to develop a “blame culture”, we do need to accept responsibility for a large component of global soil degradation because of poor management practices. The emergence of what has been called “Eco-Agriculture” in recent years is a step toward countering and reversing poor historic management practices. Among the principles that they advocate are: clear recognition of the connection between healthy soils, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy humans; the importance of working with natural systems rather than overpowering them; the critical need to enhance and protect the organic cycle in soils; and the need to minimise the use of chemicals in soil management.
An article published by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service on “Sustainable Soil Management” puts it this way:
“The type of healthy, living soil required to support humans now and far into the future, will be balanced in nutrients and high in humus, with a broad diversity of soil organisms. It will produce healthy plants with minimal weed, disease and insect pressure. To accomplish this, we need to work with the natural processes and optimise their functions to sustain our farms.”
The point of special relevance in this statement to those of us who are Christians lies in the call to “work with the natural systems and optimise their functions to sustain our farms”. When we read “natural processes … and their functions”, we need to read this in terms of God’s design (Christ’s own “handiwork”) for his wonderful world. Our love for God and our reverence for Christ should compel us to a stewardship of the soil that is based on the understanding that science can bring, on respect for the practical wisdom in soil management that the ages offer, and on the innovative holistic management approaches that have developed over recent decades, and continue to be developed by those with a concern for sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
The exercise of thinking about these things has been both rewarding and challenging. I am sure that I have overlooked things that others consider essential, and have perhaps stated things that fellow Christians might take issue with. However, what I have written is where my thoughts and convictions lie at present.
I have long appreciated the Apostle Paul’s declaration in his letter to the Romans that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” when it will be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19, 21). Its present state, like that of ours, is one of “groaning … in the pains of childbirth” (v. 22). The degradation of soils noted above and its flow-on effects for food supply and human nutrition, are but symptoms of our present state. It would be wrong to imagine that we will ever be completely free from such travail before our Lord returns.
However, that we can be indifferent to what is happening to the soils in the world, and the plight of the millions suffering from food lack and malnutrition, is indefensible. As we have gifts and opportunities, we must do what we can to meet these needs. Faithfulness to God requires at least that of us.
As a final word, I am aware that the degree and manner that those of us with experience and interest in this field engage with it is a matter of personal calling. For some, that engagement will be direct and practical. For others, it may be more in the realm of education and ideas. Grace has to be exercised in recognising a variety of responses. But all need to be willing to respond.
– Dr Andrew Young, Emeritus Principal, Grace Theological College, Auckland, New Zealand