Will farming end after 60 years?

Generating just 3cm of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official told a forum marking World Soil Day in 2014.

What’s worse, about a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded, said Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as reported in the Scientific American.

“Soils are the basis of life,” said Semedo, the FAO’s deputy director general of natural resources. “95% of our food comes from the soil.”

The causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming methods and deforestation which increases erosion.

The earth under our feet is too often ignored by policymakers, yet soils play key roles in our lives, including absorbing carbon and filtering water, the FAO reported.

“We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming,” said Volkert Engelsman, an activist with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, at an FAO forum, as reported in the Scientific American. “Organic (farming) may not be the only solution but it’s the single best (option) I can think of.”

Shockingly, half of the world’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years, warned a current online article by WWF International.

“Soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth. It is among the most precious resources to humans,” noted WWF. And soil is not “just dirt”, rather it is comprised of countless species that create a dynamic and complex ecosystem.

Without precious fertile topsoil, life on earth would not be possible as these volunteers at an organic farm in Janda Baik, Pahang, are learning hands on.

Without precious fertile topsoil, life on earth would not be possible as these volunteers at an organic farm in Janda Baik, Pahang, are learning hands on.

The increased demand for agriculture commodities means more forests and grasslands are converted to farm fields and pastures, but the change of land use often cannot hold onto the soil (http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/soil-erosion-and-degradation).

Many commercial crops such as coffee, cotton, soybean and wheat, can actually increase soil erosion beyond the soil’s ability to maintain itself, noted WWF.

The loss of fertile land is bad enough. But soil erosion has also clogged up streams and rivers because of sedimentation and caused declines in fish and other species. And degraded lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding, added WWF.

What’s needed is “sustainable land use” to prevent soil degradation and erosion and the loss of valuable land to desertification.

Actor’s warning

Back in 1980, the actor Eddie Albert, long a champion of ecological causes, warned that the loss of topsoil would be a disaster for American civilization.

The late actor Eddie Albert spoke ardently about saving our precious topsoil.

The late actor Eddie Albert spoke ardently about saving our precious topsoil.

“When our European ancestors arrived on this continent, our topsoil averaged around 18 inches (46cm) in depth. With our intensive agricultural practices, we’ve eroded it to around eight inches (20cm) that’s all that’s left between us and world disaster. When that eight inches goes, you and I go.”

He recounted how the Roman Empire had cut down the forests of southern Europe and North Africa:

When the trees were gone, topsoil loss inevitably followed. Exposed to rain, wind, and sun, it lost its organic matter, its humus, its soil life, the spongy quality that gives the earth its ability to hold water through droughts.

The soil dried out and became dead dust. The next wind blew it away, or the next rain washed it down the river and the earth died.

The climate changed as the rain cycle slowed down as a result of deforestation. The wild grass that came up was soon demolished by hungry goats, roots and all and the once glorious lands of trees, lakes, rivers, cities, palaces, universities, families, artists – millions upon millions of healthy, creating, achieving people – quietly blew away.

Albert warned that this was how splendid civilizations collapsed, visible now only as footnotes in the history books or as a few fragments of pots in museums.

He added that it takes centuries of the weathering of rocks to grow just one inch (2.5cm) of topsoil. Yet, on a hillside without its natural protective cover of plants and trees, one great rainstorm can wash it all away within an hour.

He added, “The heavy use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides etc have doubled and tripled the yield of grain per acre but at the expense of the organic matter in the soil.

“Rotation of crops has been replaced with monoculture: corn, corn, corn, or wheat, wheat, wheat. Everyone knows this method exhausts the soil and increases pest infestation, but the cash register is jingling.”

“We Americans are destroying our earth many times faster than any people who ever lived. Man, deforestation, soil erosion, abandonment – that’s the cycle. Another word inevitably follows: famine.”