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What if soil eroded?

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 01, 2013 5:46 pm    Post subject: What if soil eroded? Reply with quote

I was talking to Professor John Crawford from the University of Sydney about the subject of soil erosion this week. John is doing a lot of research into the global soil erosion issue (he is Head of Sustainability and Complex Systems at the University) and he commented recently that “A broken food system is destroying the soil and fuelling health crises as well as conflicts.”

I ask him if he thinks that soil is really running out around the world.

John thinks that we are on borrowed time. “A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left”. He says. Soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. “

John continues to tell me about why these issues are not publicised. “The connections to health, the environment, security, climate, water are not always made clear. For example, agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use. We pour most of our water straight onto the ground. If soil is not fit for purpose, that water will be wasted because it washes right through degraded soil and past the root system.” John continues to tell me more about the soil. “Soil is a living material: if you hold a handful of it, there will be more microorganisms in there than the number of people who have ever lived on the planet. These microbes recycle organic material, which underpins the cycle of life on Earth, and also engineer the soil on a tiny level to make it more resilient and better at holding onto water.” He tells me enthusiastically. “Microbes need carbon for food, but carbon is being lost from the soil in a number of ways.

• We take too much from the soil and don’t put enough back. Whereas the classic approach would have been to leave stubble in the field after harvest, this is now often being burned off, which can make it easier to grow the next crop; or it’s being removed and used for animal feed.
• Carbon is lost by too much disturbance of the soil by over-ploughing and by the misuse of certain fertilisers.
• Then there is overgrazing. If there are too many animals, they eat all the plant growth, and one of the most important ways of getting carbon into the soil is through photosynthesis.”

Key Issues

Societies in the past had collapsed or disappeared because of soil problems. Easter Island in the Pacific was a famous example. Ninety per cent of the people died because of deforestation, erosion and soil depletion. Iceland is another example where about 50% of the soil ended up in the sea. Icelandic society survived only through a drastically lower standard of living. I ask John what issues are not being addressed.

“There are two key issues.
• Loss of soil productivity; degraded soil will mean that we will produce 30% less food over the next 20-50 years. This is against a background of projected demand requiring us to grow 50% more food, as the population grows and countries eat more meat.
• Water will reach a crisis point. This issue is already causing conflicts in India, China, Pakistan and the Middle East. Before climate change and food security really hit, the next wars are likely to be fought over unsustainable irrigation. A staggering paper was published recently indicating that nearly half of the sea level rise since 1960 is due to irrigation water flowing straight past the crops and washing out to sea.”

Soil erosion is most serious in China, Africa, India and parts of South America. If the food supply goes down, then, obviously, the price goes up. The crisis points will hit the poorest countries hardest.

Food Quality
I’m interested to see what John has to say about food quality.
“The time of economic difficulty in the West is causing a growing disparity across society. The connection here with health is significant. Cheap food tends to be low in protein and high in carbohydrates, which is exactly the wrong balance. By reducing food to a mere commodity, we have created a system that is degrading the global capacity to continue to produce food and fuelling a global epidemic of diabetes and related chronic disease. We’re subsidising unsustainable food production systems at the cost of our health and our environment.”

John tells me more about how soil isn’t costed into food prices.
“Farmers don’t have the financial capacity to invest in their soil to turn the situation around. Modern wheat varieties, for example, have half the micronutrients of older strains, and it’s pretty much the same for fruit and vegetables. The focus has been on breeding high-yield crops that can survive on degraded soil, so it’s hardly surprising that 60% of the world’s population is deficient in nutrients like iron.

If it’s not in the soil, it’s not in our food.”

I ask John if he has any idea how the situation can be improved. “Significant progress is technically quite straightforward. There’s a lot we can do, we just have to choose to do it and provide the right support where it is needed.

We can:
• Focus on getting carbon back into the soil by reversing bad farming practices like tillage, nutrient mismanagement, removing stubble and over-grazing.
• We can add manure and consider using human waste from cities as fertilizer, instead of just flushing it out to sea.
• In the longer term, breeding targets need to focus more on human nutrition as well as productivity, and on traits that improve the soil.
• We need to find new ways of bringing together scientists and farmers to harness the expertise of both.
• From a policy standpoint, probably the most important thing is to find pricing mechanisms that take into account the environmental, health and other costs of a broken system.
• Farmers need to be appropriately rewarded for regenerating the environment and producing food that supports a healthier society.
• Finally we need to recognise that this is a global problem that would benefit from a global approach. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in each country, and we don’t have time to do so. It takes decades to regenerate soil.”

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if you are interested in raised vegetable beds and veggie growing I have a new website - We're busy on social networking too and have over 12,000 members in the group.
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PostPosted: Sun Jun 23, 2013 2:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for this interesting article.
I saw a programme on BBC a while back which showed the damage some forms of cultivation can do. It showed a field being ploughed and a large flock of birds following behind picking the soil clean of organisms (or the few that were left). ...Described how continuous ploughing or breaking the crust of ground removes the soils protection and leaves what little goodness is left exposed to the elements for it to be leached out. They then proceeded to spray copious amounts of nitrogen fertiliser onto the soil.... much of which is synthetic and derived from fossil fuels... so that they can squeeze as much yield as they can out of their crops....forcing growth on soil that is quite simply worn out and practically lifeless.. It all seems like madness but this is present day reality of large scale cultivation.... it is stripping the life from the soil..
Not to go off topic, but do people really know how soil is affected by weedkiller... good old glyphosate, is sprayed on crops at harvest to suppress weeds, ripen crops, and increase yield.... weedkiller that is supposed to neutralise before it reaches the soil?...... you would really have to wonder what we are eating from our supermarkets.....

Last edited by maigheomac on Mon Jun 24, 2013 1:08 pm; edited 2 times in total
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PostPosted: Sun Jun 23, 2013 2:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you Inishindie for the really interesting post. As ever, so much of what is happening on this planet seems to be governed by greed and stupidity.....
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PostPosted: Sun Jun 23, 2013 7:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Another theory ill bookmark it with
Aciid rain.
The loss of our raised bogs,
Acidification of our uplands
Climate change,
Major eruptions overdue,
Erosion of ozone layer.
rising sea levels
Bird flu
Avian flu (Whats the difference)
Underwater volcanoes could spew hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
the tundra will melt so carbon will be relaesed killing us all.
no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. ... His promise is, that he will in due time deliver the believer out of trouble, and in the mean ... The Lord will manage all his worldly concerns, and preserve his life on earth, ... The evil of sin cleaves to the best of saints, the evil of temptations besets them, ...

all these disasters that might happen have me worn out, I'm going to lie down as I think there's a meteorite on the way.
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Rank attained: Hazel Tree
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 19, 2013 4:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ahhhhh you can't beat a bit of good old sarcasm to enrich a discussion Wink
thanks Greengage
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