Monday 18 July 2011

A story which we cannot afford to ignore

I’ve just finished reading David R. Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations.  It was an excellent read and I must credit the headline of this posting to the Financial Times’ review of the book (as featured on the book’s front cover).

Professor Montgomery goes into considerable depth about the role of soil in civilisations, ancient and modern, as well as the role of soil erosion in the decline and fall of various ancient cultures, from the Romans to the inhabitants of Easter Island.

It looks at man’s utilisation and exploitation of the soil and how he has managed and mismanaged it over the centuries, up to the present day.  The book provides clear historical detail on the development of farming systems in ancient societies but also has a very contemporary feel, referring to present-day loss of soil from agricultural land, reasons behind this and how it should be addressed. 

The author spends considerable time considering how society views and treats soil – essentially as a pretty worthless and inert growing medium; something that can be exploited until it’s no longer productive, then abandoned or just topped up with synthetic fertilisers.  He argues that if we’re to survive as a society then we need to radically reconsider our attitudes – especially as soil is being lost faster than it’s being created.

The author demonstrates a keen understanding of current, strategic issues and relates these expertly to the basic, but fundamental, issue of soil.  The twin challenges of climate change and population growth are considered within the context of sustainable and resilient agricultural production.  Prof. Montgomery skilfully delivers a number of recommendations for policymakers involved with 21st century agriculture – most notably to consider better soil management as an important tool, alongside the current focus on science and technology, as mechanisms to help us deal with current and future food production problems.

The book provides a stimulating and thought-provoking read and it’s one which needs to be read by everyone with even half an interest in agricultural and environmental policy.  I’m no good as book reviewer and can’t begin to do justice to it, so your best bet is to go out and buy it.  If you’re still unconvinced, have a look at some proper reviews here, here and here.