On Top of the World: How 6 Inches of Topsoil serves the World by Tarah Ferguson

Spring has finally sprung! For many of us, that means planting season and a lot of time digging in the dirt. Fresh tomatoes and squash are so close you can almost taste them. If you never planted your garden, or if deer ate it before you could pick it, you know you don’t have to worry. You know you will still have food to eat. The U.S. is fortunate to have the most abundant, affordable, and safest food supply in the world, a luxury that we sometimes take for granted.

We owe our plentiful food supply to a 6-inch layer of topsoil and rain. One popular internet video puts this in perspective. A guy holding an apple says, “This is Earth,” and cuts it the apple in half. He then takes one half and cuts it in half again and peels off the skin, and says, “This is topsoil. This is what feeds the world.” The peeling of the quarter of the apple represents arable acres capable of growing food.

When visiting Washington D.C. with a group of young farmers last fall, I began to understand the importance of those 6 inches of topsoil. On our trip, we attended a trade briefing at the Japanese Embassy and visited with diplomats who work with the Ministry of Agriculture in Japan. The diplomats told us that Japan imports approximately 60 percent of its food annually. This blew my mind. By contrast, the U.S. imports only 15 percent of its food supply annually, the majority of which is fresh fruit and seafood. Japan has to import everything from meat, fruits, and vegetables to flour, cornmeal, and sugar. In addition, Japan imports over 95 percent of grains used to feed the country’s livestock.

Due to its geography, Japan does not have an alternative to importing the majority of its food supply. Also, 12.5 percent of Japan’s land is suitable for agricultural purposes, whereas 44.5 percent of the land in the U.S. is available for food production. In addition, beaches and mountains cover most of this island nation. Thus, while its scenery is beautiful, Japan lacks sufficient surface area to grow everything needed to feed its population.

To help overcome its food supply challenge, Japan is developing and implementing new technology. Japanese farming practices now include seed technology, which helps increase yields. In addition, Japan’s farmers are using new pesticides to decrease the burden of insects and disease, which is endemic to farming in an island climate. The diplomats explained that given the lack of space to produce food, organic farming is not prevalent in Japan.

In addition, the diplomats informed us about the agricultural policies and initiatives affecting agriculture in Japan. In contrast to the average 386.9-acre U.S. farm, the average size of a Japanese farm is 5.3 acres. The Ministry of Agriculture is working to convert land from smaller farms into “core farms”— sustainable commercial farms designed to grow large quantities of food. The diplomats implied that the Ministry of Agriculture is combining numerous small farms owned by older farmers (the average age of farmers in Japan is 66 years), to create core farms, which younger farmers, trained to grow food and conserve the land, will operate. The hope is that these larger, more efficient farms will boost food production and agricultural revenue.

In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture is working to reduce risk and expense by offering financial and technical support to farmers cultivating the new, core farms, which are far larger than the average Japanese farm. Also, the ministry is striving to increase demand and export more Japanese products, such as Wagyu beef, to increase agricultural profits.

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Upon leaving the embassy, one member of our group asked, “What if we lived in a place where the land did not produce enough food to feed us and our neighbors?” We are so accustomed to abundance — from our plentiful harvests to having more than enough food on our tables — we forget that some countries literally cannot produce enough food for their people to survive. Whether you’re growing a 100-hundred acre field of corn or a raised bed of tomatoes, it’s that all-important 6 inches of topsoil, that makes it all possible.

Photography by Tarah Ferguson (@tarahbelle930)