No one in agriculture needs to be reminded, of the value of farmland, and ultimately, the importance of high-quality topsoil. But that’s not true for the general population, which mostly ignores the status of this critical resource. Most people certainly don’t consider soil to be anything other than the dirt we sweep up, wash off and vacuum up from our houses, cars and clothes.
The reality is that fertile soil is the foundation for food and fiber production and is a critical component of the carbon cycle and overall ecosystem viability.
Both activists and scientists have cautioned that without aggressive soil conservation, farm production is compromised. And without farm productivity, the food supply is jeopardized. And without an adequate food supply, national security is threatened.
But the single greatest threat to food security isn’t the use of pesticides. It’s not the inputs required for growing cultivation of commodity crops. And it certainly isn’t the application of genetic engineering to the development of new plant varieties.
It’s a far more pedestrian problem: erosion.
Whether it’s due to poor tillage practices, relentless monocropping or simply the ravages of winds and floods, topsoil is lost by the millions of tons annually, according to experts.
“The estimate is that we are now losing about 1% of our topsoil every year to erosion,” Prof. David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a recent profile. “Most of this [loss] is caused by agriculture.”
The National Academy of Sciences in a recent report estimated that prime cropland in the United States is being eroded at least 10 times faster than the time it takes for lost soil to be replaced. And building up new topsoil takes place even under ideal conditions at a glacial rate of only about an inch or two per century.
For all the debate over agricultural sustainability, two factors are obvious: crop production needs to proceed with erosion control and soil conservation as essential priorities, and animal agriculture must remain a key component of that challenge.
Currently, for all the anger over the (alleged) problems caused by the widespread cultivation of GE crops resistant to herbicides, the by-product of the trend is rarely discussed. Thanks to the ability to pre-condition the ground for weed control, no-till farming for our key commodity crops has emerged as a widely utilized option. When farmers don’t have to disk up the ground every year, leaving farm fields open to erosion from wind and rainfall runoff, the impact on topsoil loss is significant.
But the other initiative embraced by the proponents of so-called alternative agriculture involves a series of tactics more often associated with organic farming and such systems as “polyculture,” which involves planting multiple crops in the same field, aggressively rotating crops and even allowing “beneficial” weeds to share the same acreage with cash crops.
The planting of perennial crops, intercropping, agroforestry and other “agro-ecological practices” are at the top of the list for those who’ve tried to stake out the sustainability turf in discussions of agricultural productivity.
What they don’t want to discuss is the role of farm and food animals in the sustainability equation. If the overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is fingered as both a source of water pollution and a strategy dependent on non-renewable fossil fuel sources, the only possible, practical replacement is animal manure — both as a an organic fertilizer and a potential energy source.
Of course, the only way that adequate supplies of that healthy, natural soil amendment is secured is the continued inclusion of meat and poultry products in mainstream diets. If people aren’t eating meat and consuming dairy, any hope of transitioning from what critics decry as the unsustainable dependence of agriculture on fossil energy erodes even quicker than the current rate of topsoil loss.
There are huge challenges associated with a wholesale switch to any of the various systems of alternative agriculture that activists so cavalierly propose.
“In this new century, farmers will need to produce more from their lands as they have in the past, but with fewer chemicals, fertilizers, and nonrenewable energy sources; all while causing less harm to the soil, water, and surrounding environment,” says Jerry Glover, an agroecologist for the U.S. Agency for International Development and National Geographic emerging explorer.
As the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization stated in declaring 2015 the International Year of Soils, the world needs healthy soil to ensure both environmental protection and food security.
And without a robust animal agriculture industry to provide the economic security, the soil amendments and the productivity from marginal farmland ill-suited to row cropping, the goals of the IYS are nothing more than bureaucratic hot air.