Earth running out of earth

Dirt is disappearing.

John Allemang reports [subscription] in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail:

“It’s a simple fact that we’re using up our finite supply of good soil faster than it can be made, and whatever our eyes choose to tell us, a crisis is looming.”

And then he says the loss is “…barely perceptible.”

The story swings on David R. Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, [who] was quoted as saying,

“We only have a fixed amount of soil – and we’re digging it up.… We’re on track to lose most of our agricultural soils. And even if we solve the water crisis and the climate crisis, if we don’t conserve soil, then that will do us in.”

To help focus calm thinking, Canada’s alert Agnet looks into Montgomery’s new book, ‘Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations’ [review]:

“Montgomery takes pains to demonstrate the key role played by soil degradation in almost every civilization….

“Wrecking soil, he implies, is something humans do, given the opportunity, because we’re programmed to think of immediate issues such as personal survival rather than forgoing our inheritance to benefit the farmers of the future. And one reason we can do this with a clear conscience is our belief that soil is everywhere.”

No-till farming saves soilThere is a response to losing dirt that is not summarized in the weekend news.

Agnet points out that to reduce erosion, soil advocates try to persuade farmers to cut down or even cut out the tilling (plowing) of the loose, granular soil, maintain grassy ground cover, practise crop rotation, reduce chemical fertilizer and pesticide use while making better use of manure, introduce windbreaks and work the land along more natural contours.

Conservation tillage and no-till techniques were used on 33 per cent of Canadian farmland in 1991, and on 60 per cent by 2001. By 2004, conservation tillage was practiced on about 41 per cent of U.S. farmland and no-till methods were used on 23 per cent.

South America’s Franke Dijkstra has emerged as one of the most renowned experts in no-till farming.

“My average loss from rain in Brazil was 30 tons a hectare (about 13 tons an acre). I’ve even seen some instances where 300 or 400 tons go down the river with one rain.”

Within 10 years, planting no-till has retained soil and improved raised organic matter to as high as five percent. Yields have also improved dramatically.

Only 5 per cent of the world’s farmland is worked with no-till methods.

These are odd and challenging days as we struggle with global warming, depleted oceans, tainted water, over-population, contentious politics and war. Now where we walk must be included in fresh guidelines for sustainability. What happens to Earth’s earth may well shape the course of civilization.