Worldwide: WE ARE DESTROYING THE LAND THAT FEEDS US!
Donald D Schroeder
More essential than oil! Man's precious physical resource — fertile topsoil — is being destroyed at rates alarming to experts!
IT COULDN'T be happening at a worse time. Just when the world is experiencing its greatest population growth in history — when the world food supply must nearly double — vast acreages of the earth's most productive croplands are losing fertility through erosion, misuse and neglect. Sufficient moisture in many areas and record crops have lulled many to sleep. We are failing to understand the tragedy developing in croplands around the world or under our feet. Soil expert after soil expert warns of intensifying destruction of vital soils in rich and poor nations. "Land is simply dying in place" because of increasing demands put on the soil, says one worried United States' soil official. Here is what is happening to the Lolls of the world. Here is how their destruction — unless quickly reversed — will dramatically affect your life and pocketbook.
Life of a Nation
The soil of a nation determines the life of a nation. Cropland is the foundation of civilization itself. The fertile topsoil layer in most countries is often less than a foot thick. Yet on this thin layer of soil is grown the food and fiber that supports all life and much industry. When soils flourish, nations and civilizations flourish. When soils die, civilizations die with them. Make no mistake in failing to grasp this critical fact of life: fertile soil is a living organism. Just as a human individual can be injured or killed by several means, so fertile, living soil can be injured or killed. It can be abused, stripped naked, strangled, drowned, starved or poisoned. The warning signals of abused, sick and dying soils manifest themselves through serious erosion, through water-logging or excessive salinity, through falling productivity and through sick and disease-plagued crops, livestock and humans.
Alarming World Trend
The destruction of world croplands is already well advanced. In 1977, the United Nations Conference on Desertification reported that one fifth of the world's cropland is experiencing a degree of degradation that is intolerable over the long run. The U.N. report estimated the productivity on this land has been reduced by an average of 25 percent. "We are pushing the limits of the planet now in terms of available farmland," says Douglas R. Horn of the American Farmland Trust. "All the best land on this earth that could be put into production is in production. The rest," he observes, "is marginal." Especially threatening to the world food stability is the rapid destruction of fertile soils in the leading food-exporting nations, particularly North America. Soil erosion, salt buildup, falling or polluted water tables are stripping away fertile North American farmland at rates threatening the future of the region as the food granary of the world. Soils in other leading food exporting nations — Argentina, Australia and South Africa — are also being rapidly degraded. In 1975, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, supported by a consortium of American universities, warned that "a third of all U.S. cropland is suffering soil losses too great to be sustained without a gradual but ultimately disastrous decline in productivity." A few years ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service estimated that on 40 percent of the United States' cultivated land, farmers each year lose an average of seven tons of topsoil an acre. This is well above the amounts of soil that natural processes create each year. "Ten years from now, Americans will be just as worried about the loss of prime farmlands as they are today over shortages of oil and gasoline," warns one soil expert. The productivity of Canada's cropland is similarly being reduced. Here much of the problem is the continual substitution of marginal land for prime land. Prime land is being lost to urbanization. The land being added is far less productive. Australian conservation officials are even more worried about ways to reverse massive soil spoilage than North American or European officials. Australian soils are much more shallow. On the average they are only four or five — or fewer — inches deep. Work done by the Queensland Department of Primary Industry shows that in wheat growing areas, soil is often lost at an annual rate of 50 tons per hectare (a hectare is 2.47 acres). If that rate continues many of Queensland's grain-growing soils will be depleted before another two decades. Another study shows 65 percent of the pastoral and agricultural land in New South Wales needs conservation work. Only five percent of that area has been protected through conservation. In Western Europe, the opportunities for new land reclamation are negligible. West Germany is losing one percent of its agricultural land every four years. European cities are growing at the expense of some croplands. In Italy, two million hectares have been abandoned in the last 10 years. The farming methods used on this marginal land have led to deterioration of the soil so that land is consumed in the literal sense of the word. Similar problems plague other southern European soils. Farmers there are struggling to maintain productivity.
Destruction Far and Near
In the Soviet Union, attempts to regain food self-sufficiency are not only jeopardized by frequent bad weather but by soils that have lost some of their inherent productivity. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates the Northern African tier of countries — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya — are losing 100,000 hectares (a quarter of a million acres) of range and cropland each year. The ever-growing Sahara Desert is expanding westward into Senegal and eastward into the Sudan. Ethiopia is literally going down the river. A U.S. government official reported several years ago: "There is an environmental nightmare unfolding before our eyes... It is the result of the acts of millions of Ethiopians struggling for survival: scratching the surface of eroded land and eroding it further; cutting down trees for warmth and fuel and leaving the country denuded... Over one billion... tons of topsoil flow from Ethiopia's highlands each year." Fed by human pressures on their fringes — overpopulation, overgrazing, over plowing and deforestation — virtually all of the world's major deserts are expanding. This multiplication of human and livestock populations is intensifying desert-like conditions from the Middle East to northwestern India, as well as in many parts of Africa. The salty kiss of death that withered many past civilizations now threatens many irrigated lands of the earth. FAO estimates that half of the world irrigation projects started since 1950. Many of them are already dangerously saline. Water-logging and excessive salinity now plague most Middle East irrigated lands. In Iraq and Pakistan one can witness vast, glistening white expanses of heavily salted and abandoned cropland. Salinity is rapidly killing soils in the productive Imperial Valley of Southern California, and soils in Mexico and in Argentina. Another U.N. report highlighted soil deterioration and cropland losses in the Andean region of South America. In Colombia alone, erosion robs more than 400 million tons of fertile topsoil a year — a precious resource the economically struggling nation cannot afford to lose. The Nepalese government estimates that country's rivers annually carry 240 million cubic meters of soil to India. This loss is described as Nepal's "most precious export." Soil erosion is creating an ecological emergency in Java (part of Indonesia). It is one of the world's most populated islands. Deforestation and misuse of hillside areas are destroying land faster than reclamation programs can possibly restore them. The New China News Agency recently reported a shortage of fuel for cooking is forcing China's 800 million peasants to strip vegetation from large tracts of land. The result is serious soil erosion and growth of deserts. Many food authorities see little chance to increase cropland areas worldwide. Instead, urban expansion, shopping centers and growing industry gobble up sizable amounts of prime lands. Highways of concrete and acres of asphalt parking lots eat up more. Each year thousands of additional acres of once-productive valleys are flooded behind new dams. And just when even greater increases are needed from the world's existing soils, food authorities point out that food production increases are leveling off, despite ever-increasing amounts of fertilizers poured on them. Many food officials feel the dramatic increases in food production of the 1960s and 1970s are over. The soil is beginning to rebel. It has been abused and mined. It will not sustain past high yields.
The True Cause
God created the earth and the living soil upon it. God commanded mankind to "dress and keep it," not pollute and destroy it (Genesis. 2:15). But from the beginning, man rebelled against his Creator. He chose to live by the "get" way of life, instead of God's "give" or "love" way. The destruction and killing of the world's soils is the result of human individuals and nations living the wrong way of life. Wrong agriculture takes — gets — more from the soil than is being returned — given back — to it. Man is not giving back essential elements and nutrients and giving it the tender care, protection and rest it needs to keep it fertile and workable. Selfishness and short-sightedness, along with population and economic pressures, are causing farmers throughout the world to throw many sound agricultural and conservation practices to the wind. Instead, man substitutes soil practices that damage or ruin soils for short-term profits. Today, rapidly fading from mind or altogether forgotten are concerns for maintenance of organic matter such as manures and decayed plant life in the soil. Organic matter, or humus, helps maintain proper tilth, or soil structure, so plants and soil organisms breathe properly and feed properly. Farm animals don't even exist on many farms anymore to assist in this job. Often manure is piled up on huge cattle feedlots where it runs off and pollutes land and water supplies. Sometimes it is reconverted, with the addition of molasses, as cattle feed! In developing nations, much animal waste is burned for fuel instead of fertilizing soils. On many lands crop residues are removed or burned off, instead of being plowed back in or composted for return to the soil. Many farmers are trying to bypass the living organisms that provide nutrients from humus and minerals. Instead, they believe they can force-feed directly by chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers supply a few elements agricultural scientists think are critical and necessary. Such practices lead many farmers to disregard the complex chemistry and life of fertile soil. When used exclusively or excessively, some powerful concentrated chemical fertilizers poison certain soil organisms. They cause others to proliferate and burn up existing humus at accelerated rates. The destruction of humus damages the structure of the soil: aeration, water and nutrient-holding capacity of soils drop. Under such assaults, natural granulation, the binding together of soil particles, breaks down. Then wind and water erosion strips away soil ever more rapidly. Heavier doses of fertilizers and pesticides must then be added to sustain crops. A vicious cycle of destruction is now in motion on many soils. Bad farming increases soil hardpan and encrustation. Soils choke up, they harden so roots and water can't go down deep. Farmers are forced to use heavier machinery to pull plows and break up subsoils. But the heavier equipment often causes even greater land compaction. Crop rotation, green manuring (plowing under various crops — especially grasses and legumes — to replenish soil nutrients and improve soil structure) and fallow cycles are being reduced or eliminated. Monoculture — growing one cash crop instead of rotating different cash crops — is becoming the rule. Farmers must use more and more poisonous herbicides, fungicides and pesticides to control the weeds, pests and crop diseases produced by such farming. These poisons then pollute the soil and run off with eroded soil to lakes, rivers and water reservoirs. Who is not affected by such practices? Other sound soil conservation practices are being abandoned. In the 1930s, protective shelterbelts of trees were planted on many United States soils to act as windbreaks. They are now rapidly being torn down. Many farms are run by tenant farmers or distant owners. They have no stake in soil but in getting what they can from farmland, then moving on or selling croplands for a profit, often for nonfarm use. A southwestern Minnesota farmer said soil erosion in his area is so bad it is now called "the black desert." "Thousands of shelterbelts are being ripped out," he said. "Farmers are so greedy for land that half an acre of protective trees are not worth anything anymore. Half an acre of dirt is. It's sad." Under the lure of high food prices marginal land is being plowed up and fertilizers poured on to make it produce. New hillside land often is not being properly terraced as it should be. The yields from such land is unstable and plummets with any inclement weather. Mankind seems locked into this tragic pattern of "get" agriculture. Food authorities say if chemical fertilizers and pesticides were stopped, world food production would plummet one third. What a dilemma mankind is in! We all are living on whatever good qualities world soils still have. These are rapidly being mined out or destroyed. What will happen when fertile soil resources are used up or eroded away? What if massive fertilizer shortages occur for some reason? Crop production will tumble! No modern technology will be able to save mankind quickly after he has destroyed his fertile soils!
God Must Intervene
The Creator set laws in motion to produce and maintain healthy soils. To produce healthy livestock and human beings. Many fail to see the relationship between sick soils and sick animals and human beings. God warns in the pages of your Bible what happens to individuals and nations that break his way of life and his agricultural laws. "Cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine [cattle], and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out." Why? "... because... thou hast forsaken me [the Creator]" (Deuteronomy 28:16-20). God says, "... thou hast polluted the land.... Therefore the showers have been withholden, and there hath been no latter rain" (Jeremiah 3:2-3). Do farmers and city dwellers see our weather problems at all related to what we are doing to our soils and croplands? Hardly! God commanded the ancient nation of Israel to rest their land every seventh year to allow it to regenerate and restore fertility (Leviticus 25:2-7). But modern man in his greed forgets future generations while seeking his own immediate wealth. He commonly does not let land rest properly and destroys the soil. The Creator warns nations that abuse their precious soil through overworking, "... your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy her Sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate... As long as it lieth desolate it shall rest; because it did not rest in your Sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it" (Leviticus 26:33-35). Only the restoration of God's government on earth through the return of Jesus Christ will save humanity from the disastrous dilemma that is occurring to the croplands of the world. Jesus Christ must return with full divine authority to force nations and individuals to preserve and increase the most precious physical resource humans have — fertile soil. Under God's government, everyone will be given an inheritance of good land (Zechariah 3:10). It will remain a family inheritance and families will have a large stake in maintaining and improving its fertility. They will not wander off in mass to urban centers for employment. Food production on tenderly cared-for land will skyrocket. So fertile will be the soil that this wonderful prophecy will find fulfillment: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper..." (Amos 9:13). And "... the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose" (Isaiah 35:1). The alarming destruction of croplands and the increasing woe of starvation will be no more! God speed that day!
What is living Soil?
Did you know fertile and healthy soil is very much alive? In a thimbleful of fertile soil there may be 100,000 protozoa, two billion bacteria and 30 million fungal plants. In poor soil there may be few. Under the forest floor, in fertile cropland, in your garden, is a silent (to us) beehive of activity of microscopic life — and death. It's the story of the eater and the eaten. This complex living community of organisms changes mineral and humus matter so its nutrients can be available to nourish plant and animal life of many kinds. If you could closely look at some soil organisms, for example, you would see them attach themselves directly to plant roots. The result is symbiotic relationships beneficial to both. One example is the nitrogen-fixing rhizobium in legumes such as soybeans and alfalfa. Other soil organisms act independently of plants and are free-fixers of nitrogen or other nutrients in the soil. While some organisms need humus and oxygen to survive, others are anaerobic — they don't need free oxygen. They gain energy by working on mineral matter. When these organisms die, the minerals and proteins of their bodies are made available to plants or other organisms. Now consider another vital factor in living soil — humus. Decayed plant and animal wastes we call humus or organic matter. Humus feeds the majority of microorganisms in the soil. Without the presence of humus and the activity of microorganisms we could not have renewal of topsoil from the subsoil below. Humus and substances from microorganisms help cement soil particles in clusters or aggregates. This clustering creates pockets of air and gives good soil a crumbly, airy texture you can feel with your fingers. It discourages encrustation. The open air space in soils is critically important: It allows plant roots and microorganisms to breathe, instead of suffocate. Rains are absorbed deeper and faster into such soils rather than running off. God made humus to play a vital role in soil quality and fertility. Humus-rich sandy soils hold more water and hold it nearer plant roots instead of letting water and nutrients leach out. Heavy clay soils need to be rich in humus, too, for them to be easily broken up and workable. Humus-bonded soils are more resistant to water and wind erosion. They better resist periods of droughts and floods. Heavy emphasis on use of chemicals and fertilizers in farming makes soil surface particles more erodible, and deeper soil particles denser, harder to work. In fertile soil earthworms proliferate, as do other small soil creatures. Did you know that earthworms are like farmers in the soil with a hoe or plow? — only they charge nothing for their services! Earthworms pull in and mix humus in the soil. They bring up subsoil particles and mix sand, silt and clays in a loam of tons of rich castings on every acre. These workers of the soil are additionally invaluable as they help aerate the soil and make pathways for deep-seeking plant roots. A sign of sick soil in temperate zones is lack of worms. Good farmers and gardeners respect the life of the soil. They protect their precious resource by returning sufficient humus, animal wastes or composts to the soil. This is the law of return essential for maintaining healthy soils. Good farmers use appropriate conservation practices. They rotate crops. Crop rotation prevents rapid soil depletion. Crops used one year may be shallow rooted, drawing most of their nutrients from that level. The following year the good farmer plants deeper rooted plants, which draw much of their nutrients from another level. The soil is used more evenly and efficiently. Under a good rotation system, different crops will use different amounts of essential nutrients for their growth, or they will add something to the soil helpful to another crop. Some legumes, like alfalfa for example, are nitrogen fixers and their roots reach deep into sub-soils for nutrients and thus place humus matter (their roots) in them. This helps condition sub-soils for later use as top-soils. The law of return means that nutrients taken out of fertile soil must be given back in a constructive and useable form. Modern man's agricultural practices more and more are ignoring this cycle to the destruction of soils and humans supported by them. Modern man throws organic wastes away, he buries or burns them or washes them into rivers or oceans. He pours on powerful concentrations of chemicals. He pollutes his land and water supplies while the primary physical resource of his civilization — soil languishes and erodes away. Whether we are only a small gardener or a big farmer, it is critical that we all learn to care for the soil as a living organism.
Tragedy on the American Farm
Soil crisis is developing throughout the mid-western United States. Few realize its significance. The state of Iowa, for example, is the richest single piece of agricultural real estate in the world. Yet tons of Iowa's precious topsoil are being blown and washed away faster than natural soil building can replace it. Iowa had 12 to 16 inches of marvelous topsoil when tillage began 100 years ago. But soil erosion has dwindled topsoil in many areas to 6 or 8 inches. A precious heritage is being destroyed. "Our best land is in the Mississippi delta," say Iowa farmers. This soil loss will affect, sooner than many of you realize, vital U.S. crop production. Why? Because productivity is directly related to the depth of surface soils and sub-soils. The earth that is eroding in Iowa and elsewhere in the American Midwest is the darker, more humus-laden soil. It is the kind of soil most able to hold water and nutrients. Some soil loss is tolerable, as long as it is little more than the amount of soil being annually regenerated by microbial activity and plant decomposition. But agricultural officials estimate Iowa loses almost 10 tons of topsoil an acre each year. On some Iowa farms topsoil losses are several times this shocking state average. "Without soil we're nothing," says one Iowa soil conservation official. "Many farmers really don't believe there is a finite amount of soil," he says. This official found it hard to convince farmers that their topsoil is in danger and that they must alter their methods of tillage. Much of Iowa's erosion is subtle because it is sheet erosion. That's in contrast to more noticeable rill or gully erosion. Sheet erosion is caused by water or wind traveling across the surface of land and removing soil fairly evenly, almost like peeling a sheet of paper from a giant pad. One ton of soil an acre is only about the thickness of a sheet of heavy paper. Ten sheet thicknesses of soil may not seem like much but it is devastating year after year. Dr. Min Ameiya, an Iowa agronomist, says farmers have been able to mask the damage caused to soils by using hybrid seeds and applying more and more chemical fertilizers to get high yields. They fail to see the day of reckoning drawing near, he warns. The farmers see they are getting bigger crops and wonder what we are making a fuss about," says Dr. Ameiya. "It's hard to get them to look 20 years down the road and take steps to make sure they will have land to farm." The American agricultural export boom has intensified U.S. soil erosion. As export prices rose in the 1970s, the U.S. government stopped paying farmers to keep land idle. Farmers planted fence to fence. They brought marginal lands into production and often raised two crops instead of one. Chemical fertilizers made it possible, some farmers thought, to eliminate legume rotations and cut the hard work of spreading manure. Continuous corn (maize, for our non-American readers) was planted in many areas and chemical insecticides were poured on to handle the bugs that thrive under such conditions. When everything went to corn and soybeans in Iowa in 1973, there was an erosion explosion. Soil losses increased 22 percent in the 1970s because of such intensive farming. Young and old-time farmers feel justified for their farming practices. Says one old-time Iowa farmer: "Today's economy is such that big machinery, labor costs and high prices all say to the... farmer, 'You've got to go as hard as you can, over as much land as you can, just to make ends meet.' And that doesn't lead to good land management." But, worries Iowa State University economist John F. Timmons, "If we erode our soil away, what will the next generation have?" "Technology is going to run out," warns William J. Brune, who heads the soil conservation service in Iowa. "When you get down to sub-soils, fertilizer isn't going to help a farmer produce more crops." Some soil experts estimate mid-western states could experience a 30 percent reduction in corn and soybean yields within 50 years if current erosion persists. Lester R. Brown, authority on food and population, warns, "The heavy use of fertilizer made with cheap energy has masked the basic deterioration of the soil. We're only now beginning to realize that what we're doing is not sustainable in the long run." The Bible announced this same warning for these latter days more than 3,000 years ago! You can read it in Leviticus 26:14-46 and Deuteronomy 28:15-47.