Losing Topsoil

The other day, I was on a bodybuilding site reading through a comment battle between vegetarians and vegans versus the meat eaters. Yes, this is a form of entertainment for me. One of the commenters pointed out that veganism isn’t the solution since we may well run out of topsoil in 60 years.

WHAT?

Running out of oil makes sense. So does running out of potable water. But soil? Ok, so I guess I knew that it was being degraded, but it’s really scary to think that I might live long enough to see the end of enough topsoil to support agriculture. With only a moment of research, Time magazine supported that assertion for me. The article goes on to point out that what is missing from the soil will be missing from the plants grown in the soil. So even before the soil is considered to be unusable, it’s already being less useful to those of us depending on it. Another point the article makes is that degraded soil doesn’t hold water. The worse the soil is, the less effective irrigation is.

First- why are we destroying our soil? The short answer is, we are taking and not giving. When we do give, it may well be poisoned. On most conventional farms, they’re simply too big to do things like till in nicely decomposed manure in the spring, or spread fresh manure after harvest in the fall. Spring in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was invariably announced with the smell of manure. The Amish farms would start their field prep by spreading the manure from their cows on their farm fields. Given a choice, Amish fruits and vegetables were the way to go when we were growing up, when we didn’t get enough out of our own garden. However big the Amish farm is, though, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the operations that supply grocery stores. A family-sized herd of cows won’t give nearly enough manure to replace the organic material carted away to ship to the store. Their animal counterpart, CAFOs, can’t really be used, either, since the waste they produce is pretty much toxic. In short, we are pulling out organic material, vitamins, and minerals, and all we put back is “NPK.” Because, given no other choice, plants can more or less be grown on primarily nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium. While organics are a step up from conventional produce, if you’re buying them from a big company, they’re probably still guilty of taking without giving. They just leave less poison behind.

Second- how does this affect me? When it comes down to it, I admit that what gets me moving the fastest on an issue is if I know it will have a major impact on me. This will. Already, conventionally grown vegetables (and the meat that is grown on conventionally-raised grains) offers me less vitamins and minerals than it could. Than I need. As the population grows (seriously, enough already, people) and the arable land shrinks, food prices will go up. Which means I will be paying more money for an increasingly inferior product. The more soil we lose, the more potable water we lose, since degraded soil just can’t hold on to it. I think everyone can recognize how bad that is.

So now what? I don’t own a farm that I can convert to something more sustainable. (If you do own a farm, though, that is something to keep in mind.) I do have a back yard, though. Along with the garden, I can build soil in the rest of the yard by creating a place where native plants and grasses can grow and do their thing. Going native generally means fewer chemicals (if any) and once it is established, way less upkeep. Having a healthy lawn also means that when I’ve had it with food prices, it’s much easier to convert to a healthy garden. I will already be working on the topsoil, including encouraging the growth of all the creepy-crawlies that keep a garden healthy. I can also make a more concerted effort to support those that support our soil. Buy local, buy organic, and buy from small producers. 100 acres is much easier to take good care of than 1,000. 10 acres they should know even more intimately. Buy grass-finished meat. Not only is it better for you, but it is a lot better for the environment. If you live in an apartment, ask a friend if you can help in their garden, or hijack a corner of their lawn to start your own. There aren’t many that would turn down help with pulling weeds or free, fresh veggies.

Will any or all of this fix the mess we’ve made of our farmland? Not hardly. But the less we rely on conventional farming, the less affected we will be when it collapses. The more we support responsible and sustainable farming, the more it will be seen as a viable option for those conventional farmers that just can’t do it any more. I doubt there is a single farmer out there that actually wants to destroy their fields. It behooves us to make conventional farming less profitable than sustainable farming. Help the farmers help the soil. We can’t live without it.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Soil loss can be repaired. There are huge soil generating systems causing enormous troubles around the world. The silt generated by aquatic weed infestations is soil waiting to be used. Ask those farming the dried out sections of Lake Chad. Our west has hundreds of lakes that have become sloughs and are on their way to being grasslands. (look up hydrosere on Wikipedia) These lakes no longer replenish aquifers and no longer generate “lake effect” rains. We can control these weeds by harvesting them and their silt. The weeds have fuel and fiber uses, the silt is soil. If we do, we can expect to end this seemingly endless drought. Your cattails produce the solution to the soil problem in troublesome quantities!

    Reply

  2. You do bring up a good point that as the lakes dry up, they do open up more arable soil. However, I think that encouraging lakes to dry up is akin to cutting down forests and drying out the Everglades to give us more room to farm. The bad outweighs the good. Rather than moving on to a new piece of land to farm, we need to figure out how to fix the land we are on. The lakes need to be left alone so that they can be the fresh water filters that they are. After all, we’re running out of fresh water, too, so let’s not hasten that, either.

    Reply

    • I’m out to fix the lakes by harvesting and removing the weeds. This is a forever process. These weeds are feloniously renewable. If we clear them we will renew the lake’s roll in producing rain. Fixing the wetlands is the way to fix the drylands. We can finance it with the fuel that can be made from the weeds. The lakes need repair. The point about the farming in Lake Chad is that the soil left from the silt is quite fertile, and could be used elsewhere to replace damaged soil.

      Reply

  3. I understand, now. Yes, that makes a lot of sense. And actually, one of the ways to help the lakes is to use more sustainable farming methods so that we stop washing so much nitrogen into them, which encourages the weeds to grow. It would be a win all around.

    Reply

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