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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 11:42 pm

The straight dirt

Addressing the chief threats to healthy soil

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Soil faces many man-made threats today.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
Untitled Document The soil beneath our feet is a critical resource but subject to many threats. What are they, and what can be done?
Even among the ecology-minded, soil falls well below the radar of important causes, but the relationship between soil quality and both environmental and human health is intricately entwined. From the food we eat and the clothes we wear to the air we breathe and water we need to drink, we depend upon the dirt beneath our feet. Soil nurtures and feeds all life on earth while undergirding our cities, forests, waterways, and crucial agricultural activities. Further, healthy soil and the plant matter it holds steady act as important “carbon sinks” that lock vast amounts of carbon up that would otherwise contribute to global warming. Throughout history, great civilizations prospered where soils were fertile and fell when soils could no longer sustain rough treatment. In Mesopotamia, poor land management caused soils to become degraded, leading to loss of agricultural productivity, migrations, and, ultimately, civilization collapse. Ancient Greece suffered a similar fate. Many experts also blame the fall of the great Mayan civilization on soil exhaustion and erosion resulting from agricultural practices and clear-cutting of forests. Today we face many of the same issues: forest loss, overconsumption, overpopulation, and overworked soils nearing collapse. Although factors such as logging, construction, off-road vehicles, floods, and droughts do threaten the soil, high use of agricultural pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals, as well as livestock grazing and the “factory farming” of food animals, are primary culprits. Chief among the threats to the soil is damage to or loss of fertile topsoil. According to the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, topsoil erosion today reduces productivity on 29 percent of U.S. cropland and negatively affects 39 percent of rangeland. In West Africa, fertilizer overuse is causing already acidic soils to become even more so, making the farming of even native crops difficult. In sub-Saharan Africa, declining soil fertility from intensive farming is a main cause of poverty and hunger.
Urban erosion is equally significant and is becoming more serious as population growth fuels urban development. Housing and building projects gouge the soil and strip its vegetation. Rain then washes the soil into sewers and then waterways. This doesn’t just lead to water pollution; the glut of nutrients the soil carries with it causes “algae blooms” that use up oxygen and choke out aquatic life. Educating farmers in the U.S. and abroad about the damaging effects of intensive agriculture and overapplication of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a good place to start to try to make things right. Converting more farming to organic methods that eschew chemicals altogether is an even better solution. Supporting local farms also promotes better land stewardship, because megafarms make heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and factory animal farms generate huge amounts of animal waste, which pollutes the surrounding land and soil. Cities and towns can do their part by supporting low-impact development and mandating greener design standards.
For more information: ASABE, www.asabe.org; E — The Environmental Magazine, “The Scoop on Dirt: Why We Should all Worship the Ground We Walk On,” www.emagazine.com/view/?3344.
Send questions to Earth Talk at P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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