Lush Fields Belie an Empty Harvest
Soil and Civilization
Healthy soil is America’s greatest natural resource. But few realize that the current state of widespread soil erosion in North America threatens our way of life. It may seem hard to believe, but only a few inches of topsoil stand between you, me, and starvation. Just what makes care of the topsoil so important? There are several things to consider.
First, soil is the medium for all plant life. What is popularly called topsoil is the rich, nutrient-laden cover of the Earth’s crust from which food crops draw their sustenance. Underneath the topsoil there may be clay, shale, or rocksubstances that do not support food crops. It is only in the precious shallow topsoil that plants are seeded, germinated, sprouted, nurtured, and grown. These plants serve as food for animals on the lowest ends of the food chain. Animals that eat these plants supply food to animals on the highest ends of the food chain.
Second, attention to topsoil is important because topsoil is easily exhausted from lack of care. The best farmers replenish the soil as it is farmed. Unfortunately, this practice has become an exception to the rule. Results of ignorance of proper agricultural methods can be seen in every country on Earth. Even in the Amazonian tropical rain forest, where many of us might assume that topsoil is extra rich due to the intense heat, humidity, and rapid decomposition of surrounding plants, topsoil exhaustion is epidemic. In this area of the world, farmers continue to practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture. They cut down several acres of trees and vegetation, burn it, and then plant their crops. In a few seasons, the land is as barren and sterile as a desert. Then, they move on. Needless to say, this practice does not help the soil quality.
Third, care of topsoil is important because it is dependent on life around it to retain its own life-giving properties. One of the main reasons for the famine in East Africa today is lack of topsoil brought about by massive deforestation. At the turn of the century, 90 percent of Ethiopia’s land was covered by forests. Less than a century later, not 5 percent of that forest remains. How did this occur? With the trees cut down for easy profit, the rain waterinstead of soaking into the topsoilrushed down the hillsides, flooded the valleys, and carried the earth off with it. The trees had shaded the soil, and the roots had acted as pumps, drawing water up near the surface of the ground, keeping the water table high. But now they were gone. Without tree roots to keep the water table high, the soil was exposed to sun, wind, and rain. It was baked dry, washed away into streams, rivers, and oceans, or simply blown away. Without soil in which to grow plants to feed animals and humans, mass starvation soon resulted.
Care of our forests cannot be overstressed. This is because the destruction of any kind of forest causes great imbalance in the planet’s ecosystem. Trees are vitally important not only for soil stability but also because they give us our human breath, and we give them theirs. Trees release oxygen and consume carbon dioxide. Humans do the reverse.
Further, deforestation without replanting is a threat to nature because it kills non-hybrid progenitor trees and plants. For instance, the progenitor of all coffee bean trees is from Ethiopia. If the last of these trees died from neglect, the hybrid species would become the ultimate source of coffee beans. But if the hybrid coffee bean trees around the world were then killed by some species-specific disease or agricultural malaise, there would be no original seed to fall back upon. Then, coffee bean treesnot to mention coffee breakswould become extinct. While coffee is not a matter of life and death, this example of how biology impacts sociology is one that the Earth’s inhabitants might do well to ponder. THE LIMITS OF EROSION
Some soil erosion is natural. Wind picks up dust, and rain washes it away. Normally, nature can manage to replace the loss, slowly weathering sand and clay from rock, and mixing it with organic matter. But our destructive approach toward agriculture and development speeds erosion rates far beyond what nature can replace.
Highway construction, for instance, can accelerate erosion 200 times the natural rate. In just a matter of months, shopping-center development, surface mining, logging, and off-road vehicles can obliterate topsoil that nature took a thousand years to createand needs a thousand years to replace.
Just how much damage has man done? In Iowa, topsoils that were once a foot deep today are less than six inches deep. Although it doesn’t sound like much, six inches can be devastating. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that a six-inch loss of topsoil, such as the current one in the southern Piedmont, is capable of reducing crop yields by 40 percent per year. Though crop loss and deforestation are bad enough, they are not the only soil erosion stories.
Soil erosion interferes with wildlife in many ways. When soil fertility is reduced, there is less life in the soil. That means less food for all animalsfrom the worms and insects to the birds that eat them to the larger animals that eat birds and, finally, to humans. Soil erosion kills water ecosystems, as well. The silt that accumulates in lakes because of runoff causes the lakes to grow shallower. Then the weeds proliferate, choking off oxygen needed by fish. Fish die, and the same negative sequence of eventsonly in an aquatic settingoccurs.
My teaching and traveling experiences have made me aware that people are not taught how intricately their lives are woven with the life of their land. This ignorance is reflected in abusive agricultural methods. It is reflected in the way people eat, accepting into their bodies foods grown on sterilized, poisoned soils that have all too few nutrients to impart to the plantor to them. WE DON’T HAVE AS MUCH LAND AS WE THINK
Geologists say there are 58 million square miles of land surface on the Earth, but only 10 million square miles of this can be farmed. It takes about two acres of land to feed one person for a year. But, right now, there is only one acre per person, and not all of this is good land. That is why, in my opinion, about two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry every night.
Fortunately, the United States has enough land to feed its people well. But there are still serious problems with the way we use our land. More than half of the agricultural land of the United States has been severely eroded or farmed incorrectly. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, of our current 421 million acres of productive farmlands, 97 million acres are eroding at more than twice the tolerance” levelthe level at which soil can be replaced naturally. Another 89 million acres are eroding at one to two times that tolerance level. In all, nearly 40 percent of our farmlands are losing topsoil.
Ecologist Gene Logsdon wrote, The fall of almost every civilization is largely on account of raping natural resources until all the easy profit goes out of them.” By the 1930s, most of the cream” had been skimmed off of American soils, and diminished crops of mineral-deficient vegetables, fruits, and grains began to appear. Interestingly, chronic, degenerative diseases began to escalate at this time, as wellarthritis, diabetes, cancer, lupus, osteoporosis, and dental caries.
TISSUE-INTEGRITY AND WELLNESS