Soil: Key to solving the food crisis?

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Soil: Key to solving the food crisis?

Four African women and dozen children sitting on ground, woman in front is hand gesturing, child on her lap

2008, probably Ethiopia, Alex Wynter/IFRC
This woman’s sick, malnourished daughter holds her head and shields her eyes from the sun.

In some places, the harvest is preceded by “hunger season,” when stored crops are exhausted but the new crop is not ready. For many reasons, we’re wondering if the Earth is entering a long hunger season:

Food prices reached records in February, which may even have helped spark the political unrest that swept the Middle East. As Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute notes, a 10 percent rise in the price of wheat barely budges the price of bread in developed countries, but directly boosts the price of chapattis in India.

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The population is expected to reach about 9 billion by 2050, and 3 billion people with rising incomes have a growing appetite for grain-intensive animal protein.

The World Food Program estimates that one person in seven goes to bed hungry. One reason is poverty: In this world, only the poor are hungry. But other reasons are related to supply and demand:

Grain yields are rising about 40 percent more slowly than they were 40 years ago.


Satellite image of huge cloud swirl mixed with dark tan dust swirl over land mass

7 April, 2001: NASA
Dust from this giant dust storm in China, which turned the daytime sky midnight-dark, blew to the Great Lakes in North America. A study found that China had a dust storm once every 31 years before 1949. Since 1990, dust storms have occurred almost every year.

Demand for biofuel is soaring. 28 percent of the 416-million ton grain crop in the United States was fermented into ethanol in 2009. That was “enough to feed 350 million people for a year,” says Brown, who has warned about a food crisis for decades.

A warming climate may already be pinching food supplies; a horrific heat wave in Russia last summer crushed grain harvests, leading to a ban on grain exports.

Warming may also exacerbate water shortages, which already affect 30 nations. According to Brown, 305 million people in India and China are eating grain irrigated by over-pumping groundwater – a supply that will taper off long before the aquifers run completely dry.

Cropland is being converted to factories, highways and cities, or turning to desert, especially in Africa and Asia. For example, Nigeria is losing 351,000 hectares of rangeland and cropland to desert each year, primarily due to overgrazing by a livestock herd that has grown 1700 percent since 1950.

One-third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than soil can form, says Brown: “In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.”

The end of civilization?

Depleted soil is a legacy of many failed civilizations, wrote soil scientist David Montgomery1 of the University of Washington. “In recent decades, archaeological studies confirmed pronounced episodes of soil erosion associated with the rise and subsequent decline of civilizations in the Middle East, Greece, Rome, and Mesoamerica, as well as other regions around the globe.”

With record food prices, every price rise means more hungry people.

Indeed, Montgomery writes, “a limiting lifespan of an agricultural civilization can be estimated by the time needed for conventional agriculture to erode through the native stock of topsoil,” which “predicts reasonably well the historical pattern of a 500- to several-thousand-year lifespan for major civilizations around the world.” These calculations, he says, support the argument “that it was not the axe that cleared forests but the plow that followed that undermined many ancient societies.”

Soil health is often gauged by the percentage of organic matter — the decomposing plant material that feeds microbes and soil animals, and enables soil to hold water and nutrients, says Jane Johnson, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Minnesota. “Most of the characteristics that we associate with high quality soil are directly or indirectly linked to soil organic matter.”

Therefore, the emphasis on protecting and improving soil so it can feed an ever-growing population often comes down to the level of organic matter. In the United States, much of the cropland has already lost 30 to 50 percent of its organic matter since Europeans started farming a couple of centuries ago, says Rattan Lal, a professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University.

Soil scientist William Larson: “Soil is that thin layer on the planet that stands between us and starvation.”

Most productive soil in Africa and Asia has lost 70 percent to 80 percent of its organic matter, says Lal, an outspoken defender of the soil, and long ago crossed the line toward ruination. “There is a threshold — about 1.2 percent to 2 percent of carbon [the usual measure of organic matter] — to maintain soil health, water retention and other soil services.”

Many soils in Africa, India and China have only one-tenth that much carbon, Lal says, and that leads to a truckload of trouble. “When you add fertilizer, it washes into the groundwater because the organic matter is not there, and the same goes for pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals wash into rivers or the groundwater, or enter the atmosphere, where they cause human health and environmental problems,” without conferring much benefit to the crop.


Three raised dirt beds with very dark soil, small green leafy plants growing from them

Photo: Red58bill
Adding composted sewage, or “biosolids,” is an excellent way to sustain fertility. These pumpkin seedlings were planted on composted biosolids at a community education garden.

Lal says a train in his native Punjab, India is dubbed the “Cancer Express” because it travels through a region where “many people are prone to cancer because of pollution of the drinking water. The soil does not have the capacity to hold water and pollutants. That is what the biological health of soil does; you get microbial decomposition, absorption of organic matter and retention of water. If crop residues are taken away, if dung is taken away for cooking, the soil has nothing left to provide the services. It essentially becomes a sand culture.”

Good soil, great benefits…

About the only bright spot in the grim picture of soil destruction is this: many solutions offer synergistic benefits. Leaving a crop residue on the surface cuts wind and water erosion, and raises the level of organic matter. Conservation tillage cuts erosion, reduces the need for irrigation, and stores carbon in the soil. Smart irrigation reduces water use, and the need to plant on steep, erodible slopes.


Man hoeing the earth, pile of very dark soil next to him, leafy plant stalks surround him

Adding charcoal (AKA biochar) to the soil feeds microbes, improves water retention and invigorates depleted soil.

Soil – some still call it dirt – is not as popular as Facebook or Dancing with the Stars. But it’s a whole lot more important. “Our ability to feed humankind in the future depends on a stable, improved soil resource,” says Jerry Hatfield, director of the Agricultural Research Service lab in Ames, Iowa.

Or, as University of Minnesota soil scientist William Larson once said, “Soil is that thin layer on the planet that stands between us and starvation.”

Enough with the problems. Let’s look at some serious soil solutions.

Washing away

Because water erosion can rapidly flush nutrients, mineral soil and organic matter from hilly land, the battle against water erosion has been a focus of American farmland conservation since the 1930s. One common prescription is contour planting; rows planted across the slope are more resistant to erosion than those running up the slope.

A standard way to protect soil is to leave crop residues in place after harvest, but bioenergy proposals often suggest that these wastes be fermented into cellulosic ethanol. The best solution depends on the situation, Johnson says. “If the land is highly erodible, we should not take residue. But if the landscape has a low erosion risk, then if we can manage it to protect organic matter by leaving enough residue in place, chances are we will have more than enough cover for erosion control. I believe it is possible to take some residue off, but not everywhere.”

The focus in protecting soil has shifted from the mineral component of soil to its organic matter, which is more sensitive, says Johnson. “In most cases, protecting the organic matter will protect against erosion, but if you only manage for erosion control, that may be not enough to retain the organic matter.”

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Gone with the wind

The “Black Blizzards” of the 1930s Dust Bowl proved beyond question that wind can transport large amounts of soil to the wrong place. Could we see a rerun of the Dust Bowl? “People say we will never have a Dust Bowl again, because of the conservation practices that we put in,” says Hatfield, but the Dust Bowl also followed years of severe drought, which further stripped farm fields of cover.


Very dry and brown grassy landscape speckled with cattle

Photo: NRCS, NRCSHI03028
The early effects of drought show up in Hawaiian rangeland. As cattle eat the surviving plants, more soil will erode.

Furthermore, says Hatfield, co-editor of a new book on soil management,2 many of the windbreaks planted to slow wind erosion have been removed to allow the use of large farm machinery. “What would happen if, across the Great Plains, we had three or four years with hardly any rainfall? I dare say we would not see the extent of the Dust Bowl, but would our current conservation practices be sufficient? … How much can you expect when the land is naked?”

Confronting drought


Rows of short green plants, widely separated, in a dry field

Arkansas: Tim McCabe, NRCS NRCSAR83004
Drought has stunted this corn crop. Soil with lots of organic matter can hold more moisture, which reduces but does not eliminate the effects of drought.

The Dust Bowl shocked Americans, but drought is a common problem that has differing consequences. Recent reports show that California’s farm industry did well during the 2007-2009 drought, mainly because large farmers had access to irrigation water. But wheat production in Southwest Kansas is now expected to fall at least 25 percent due to drought. According to Bloomberg News, the state’s wheat crop “has suffered irreversible damage from the country’s driest spring in half a century…”

In places where irrigation is impossible or inadequate, standard soil-conservation techniques, including retaining organic matter in and on the soil, can improve water retention.

Cities devour farmland

The 80 million people joining the population every year require 3200 square kilometers land for shopping malls, roads, airports and housing. Cruelly, much of that growth occurs in places with productive soil, says Charles Rice, a professor of agronomy at Kansas State University, because big cities typically start out in a region with productive farms. “Chicago is a prime example; the soils in northern Illinois are some of the best in the world, but unfortunately Chicago is growing. I hate to see that valuable productive land paved, built upon. In Asia and Europe, around the world, megacities are consuming land. We need to figure this out, but nobody has.”


Crop field covered in thick layer of dry yellow residue from maize

Maize (corn) residues on the soil at trial plots in northern Mexico. Residues, a key part of conservation agriculture, create a fertilizing mulch that protects the soil from excessive drying and wind and water erosion.

Aerial view of never-ending urban landscape, skyscrapers in foreground flow to expanse of suburbs

Photo: caribb
Chicago is one of many cities built atop excellent topsoil. For a few centuries, at least, nobody is going to be planting much food here.

Aerial view of never-ending landscape of boxy apartments and houses

In Jodhpur, India, and in many other locations, urbanization has replaced farms.

Salty soil is worthless soil


Scrubby field of grass with large patches of exposed dirt

This wheat field has rising concentrations of salt, probably left by long-term irrigation. Fresh water commonly delivers salt, which concentrates with subsequent irrigation. Salt accumulation, or “salinization,” stunts plants and has delivered a death knell to civilizations reliant on irrigation.

Rows of raised beds covered in plant debris with water running through channels between beds

In these irrigated conservation-agriculture fields in Sonora, northern Mexico, the crop is planted in raised beds, allowing furrows to efficiently control flow of water. Permanent raised beds improve the soil structure, require less water, and reduce salt buildup.
Drip irrigation slashes water usage and retards salt buildup. Conventional spray irrigators have much greater evaporative loss.

Rows of grapevines with tube strung between plants in each row, water dripping onto ground from tube


Tractor pulling small plow through dirt field covered in plant debris

Central Iowa: Tim McCabe, NRCS, NRCSIA99100
Conservation tillage leaves crop residues on the soil, reducing erosion.

A bright idea: reduce tillage, save topsoil

Perhaps the largest success story in protecting soil is the no-till revolution in agriculture. Rather than turning over soil to bury weeds and crop residues, a no-till machine plants directly in the stubble, then controls weeds with herbicide. The process saves diesel fuel and also retains organic matter, says Hatfield, who observes that carbon compounds oxidize rapidly when the soil is disturbed. “We need to protect the soil from within, with more organic matter, and from the external forces, like wind and water.” Sustaining the soil, he says, “Is really about building that organic matter reservoir.”

In 2010, no- or low-till farming occupied at least 20 million hectares each in the United States, Brazil and Argentina, with significant areas in Canada and Australia.

If crop residues and dung are not returned to the soil, “the soil essentially becomes a sand culture.”

“If you go to South America and talk to producers,” says Hatfield, “they look at conservation practices as the normal accepted practice — if you used a moldboard plow [which turns over the soil and exposes it to erosion] they would probably shoot you! In the last 20 years, they have realized what a precious resources soil is, and to maintain its viability, they have preserved the organic matter.”

But worldwide, no-till occupies only 6 or 7 percent of the 1,500 million hectares under cultivation. “You could call that a success,” says Lal. “But in the places where it is needed most desperately, Africa, Asia, those desperate farmers cannot implement no-till.”


Aerial of tractor pulling machine through hilly, grassy field

Photo: Tim McCabe, NRCS NRCSWA84007
A no-till planter burying lentil seeds in wheat residue in Washington state. New soil is not exposed, reducing oxidation of organic matter. The wheat stubble protects the soil until the lentils emerge.

Woman holding radio-like device looking at sky, doves and china flag behind her, baby floating above

Image: IISG
In the long term, smaller families should reduce pressure on the soil. But many other factors, including a growing preference for meat and demand for biofuel, work in the opposite direction.

Summing up

Optimism is not a common response to discussions of the world’s degrading soils. Lal says two to three billion hectares already are degraded, but contends that problems related to energy use, global warming and clean water also have strong ties to land degradation.


Smiling African woman standing with rows of tall maize

In Malawi, Africa, Grace Malaitcha cultivates maize using conservation agriculture, which halves field-preparation labor, yet produces a bigger crop. Since adopting conservation practices in 2005, she has bought two pigs and built a brick pigsty.

To take two examples, surface water is easily polluted when it washes off eroded land, and healthy soil stores vast amounts of carbon, slowing global warming. “All these issues are linked with one another, and soil is the common link,” says Lal. “We have the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] to address climate change … but soil is addressed by nobody, even though … we cannot address water security, energy, biofuels, global warming, without soil.”

Not to mention the daily problem of putting bread on the table…

But here’s a reason for optimism: The measures that can solve individual problems often can solve multiple problems. Conservation tillage saves water, organic matter, topsoil, even energy. Drip irrigation reduces salinity and saves water and energy. Cover crops raise fertility and reduce erosion.

And, no coincidence, all of these soil-friendly practices also increase yields.

So if you like to eat, the time to think about soil is … now.

– David Tenenbaum

1 Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability, David R. Montgomery, PNAS August 14, 2007
2 Soil Management: Building a Stable Base for Agriculture

Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
  2. Soil science education.
  3. FAO soil resources.
  4. Importance of soil organic matter.
  5. Salty soils.
  6. Soil biodiversity and soil health.
  7. World soil database.
  8. World soil information.
  9. Climate change and food security.
  10. International Center for Tropical Agriculture.
  11. USDA-NRCS soils.
  12. Science Magazine: soils and food security.
  13. Conservation tillage systems.
  14. Conservation tillage links.