Now fast shaping up - World CRISIS in AGRICULTURE!
Eugene M Walter & Dale L Schurter
Government leaders worldwide have been jolted. They have suddenly come face-to-face with a dangerous yet little understood crisis in agriculture. WHY the CRISIS? How did it develop? Why were we not told before? Where is it leading and what is the solution?
AGRICULTURE is the oldest, biggest and most basic occupation of man. It has played a vital role in the rise and fall of every great civilization in history. It still employs an estimated two-thirds of the human race. And it provides you with your daily bread. But today agriculture is in deep trouble. It is facing a crisis which even now is affecting the cost and the quality of the food on your dinner table.
A False Assumption
It is easy to see that widespread disease and famine loom on the horizon for the poor, "have not" areas of the world. But few are aware that an agricultural crisis of equal and possibly greater magnitude is in prospect for that third of the world we call the "have" nations. We in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, South Africa and the other "have" areas of the world are dazzled by the storybook pronouncements of "scientific agriculture." We have become so accustomed to talk about "burdensome surpluses" that we seem to believe we are immune to a food crisis. But in the very near future, the growing crisis in agriculture could easily cause YOU to be numbered among the seriously sick and diseased or among those hapless millions who go to bed at night with empty aching stomachs.
Seven Inches from Starvation!
No matter who you are or where you live, you must eat food to continue your physical existence. Ultimately ALL your food comes directly or indirectly from the soil and, more specifically, from the top few inches of earth known as topsoil. This life-sustaining topsoil lies in a thin layer at an average depth of seven or eight inches over the face of the land. In some few areas it may be as deep as two feet or more; in many other areas it is considerably less than even seven or eight inches (Bennett, Soil Conservation, p. 5). "If that layer of topsoil could be represented on a 24-inch globe it would be as a film three-millionths of one inch thick. That thin film is all that stands between man and extinction" (Mickey, Man and the Soil, pages 17-18). This thin layer of earth sustains ALL PLANT, ANIMAL AND HUMAN LIFE! Previous civilizations have already destroyed much of it, and today we are depleting and destroying that which remains at a faster rate than at any previous time in human history. Look for a moment at what man has done to the soil.
The Record of History
The valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates supported some of the greatest civilizations of old. A great irrigation complex was based on these rivers. These rich lands were the granary of the great Babylonian Empire. Pliny, the Roman naturalist and writer, tells of harvesting two annual crops of grain on this land and grazing sheep on the land between crops. Today, less than 20 percent of the land in modern Iraq site of these two famous valleys is cultivated. The landscape is dotted with mounds representing forgotten towns, the ancient irrigation works are filled with silt (the end product of soil erosion), and the ancient seaport of Ur is now 150 miles from the sea with its old buildings buried under as much as 35 feet of silt. Similar conditions exist in Iran, once the seat of the great Persian Empire. The valley of the Nile was another cradle of civilization. Every year the river overflowed its banks at a predictable time, bringing water to the land and depositing a layer of silt rich in mineral nutrients for plants. Crops could be grown for seven months each year, and extensive irrigation systems were established by 2000 B.C. This land became the granary of the Roman Empire, and this system of agriculture flourished for another 2,000 years. But the population has continued to grow, and economic considerations have diverted land from growing food to growing cash crops such as cotton. Then in 1902 a dam was built at Aswan to prevent the spring flood and to permit year-round irrigation. Since then the soils have been deteriorating through salinization, and productivity has decreased. The new Aswan high dam is designed to bring another million acres under irrigation. If other forces did not bring about destruction first, the dam could become the ultimate disaster for Egypt. Aside from salinization, population growth has virtually outstripped any possibility that the new agricultural land can raise the average level of nutrition. The Sahara desert was once forested and inhabited. The glories of ancient Mali and Ghana in West Africa were legends in medieval Europe. Ancient Greece had forested hills, ample water, and productive soils. In Lebanon the old Roman roads which have prevented erosion of the soil beneath them now stand several feet above the desert floor. But in a church yard protected from goats for 300 years, cedars were found in 1940 to be flourishing as in ancient times. "In China the evidence is plainer. The Chinese had one of the greatest and earliest of civilizations. Today they are a poverty-stricken, and helpless people. Tens of millions of them are crowded into flat muddy valleys and other millions of them huddle in house boats on rivers which run yellow with soil from their hillsides". (Soil Erosion Control, Burges, pages 1-2) "Probably no worse eroded region exists in the world than northwest China. The channel on the Yellow River is choked with silt and its floods are catastrophic in character". (Man and the Soil, p. 37) "In China and India, ancient irrigation systems stand abandoned and filled with silt," Dr. Lamont C. Cole told a symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "When the British assumed the rule of India two centuries ago the population was about 60 million. Today it is about 500 million and most of its land problems have been created in the past century through deforestation and plowing and the resulting erosion and siltation, all stemming from efforts to support this fantastic population growth." Speaking of Central and South America, Dr. Cole said, "Archaeologists have long wondered how the Mayas managed to support what was obviously a high civilization on the now unproductive soils of Guatemala and Yucatan. Evidently they exploited their land as intensively as possible until both its fertility and their civilization collapsed. In parts of Mexico the water table has fallen so that towns originally located to take advantage of superior springs now must carry in water from distant sites... Aerial reconnaissance has revealed ancient ridged fields on flood plains, the remnants of a specialized system of agriculture that physically reshaped large parts of the South American continent." Today we call these areas of the world underdeveloped. We ought to call them overdeveloped!
The Lesson of Rome
Although the record is not complete, more is known about the progress of soil depletion in the Roman Empire than in the ancient civilizations of western Asia. What is known makes an invaluable case history. The soils of Italy started to decline before the reign of Augustus (called the golden age of Rome), and by the time of the fall of the Western Empire, some 500 years later, the soils not only of Italy but of all the provinces except Egypt were completely exhausted. In England evidences of Roman cultivation have been found, in places, five feet below the present surface. Largely as a result of Roman exploitation, there are today no forests on the Mediterranean coast from Spain to Palestine (Vanishing Lands, Jacks and Whyte, p. 80-81). Typical of this region is the North Dalmatian coast where the hills were once magnificently clothed with primeval forests. The Romans and the Illyrians, the earliest inhabitants, began the destruction of the forests. The first Slav settlers were prodigal, too. The denudation of the hills was completed by the Venetians, from about 1400 to 1700, who cut the trees for timber for their ships and piling for their palaces. The Yugoslav government was unable to reforest the hills because the young trees not uprooted by the savage north winds of winter were eaten by the goats of the peasants. Before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A. D., the agricultural regions of Italy and the provinces were nearly depopulated. The exhausted, eroded soil simply could not support the population and the terrific weight of imperial taxation. Until modern America came on the scene, the world had never known a more exhausting exploitation of both man and soil than that of the Roman Empire. As we have just seen, the results of Rome's avarice are visible yet today in the eroded hills of Greece and the Mediterranean coast, in the sands of North Africa and Western Asia. Yet thirty years ago Kellog reported that some soils in Italy had completely recovered and were producing more than they ever did. Also, some soils in Central Europe and England have been farmed for centuries not only without injury, but with yields steadily increasing for the past 150 years (The Soils that Support Us, p. 269). WHY? How did this recovery come about? And why is it that the soils of Central Europe and England have not suffered erosion comparable to that of other areas?
The Golden Age of Abundance
Following Rome's self-destruction, Europe in the Middle Ages was always on the verge of starvation. No progress was made in maintaining soil fertility. During the 18th century, Central Europe's soils were showing severe deterioration. But since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the world has had a larger food supply than it ever had before. The 19th century was the golden age of abundance. If you wonder why this abundance came about just at this point in history, write for our free book, The United States and The British Commonwealth in Prophecy. Except for this relatively brief period, food has been man's chief preoccupation throughout history. Now this age of abundance is rapidly drawing to a close. Already two-thirds to three-fourths of the human race are again underfed and undernourished. Two factors made the 19th century an era of spectacular abundance of food. While Europe was undergoing an industrial revolution, it is often overlooked that it was simultaneously undergoing an agricultural revolution. Substitution of grasses and legumes for bare fallow, contour cultivation and good crop rotations were three important conservation practices which were adopted. Further, agriculture shifted from a soil-depleting grain economy to a soil-building livestock economy. Devoting large acreages to permanent improved pasturage not only greatly increased Europe's food production, but gave an unparalleled stability to her soils a stability maintained despite two world wars. This stabilization was aided by the fact that soils in Central Europe are generally heavy and not as easily erodible. Also, the rainfall is regular, frequent, and gentle, as contrasted with the heavier and more irregular rains that prevail in most parts of the U.S. But there is also this most important fact which must be considered: SOIL STABILITY IN EUROPE WAS PURCHASED AT THE EXPENSE OF THE RUTHLESS EXPLOITATION OF THE SOILS IN THE NEW CONTINENTS. (Food or Famine, p. 5) The dramatic agricultural revolution which fed the new European masses fathered by the machine age was important. But even more important was the European colonization of the rich new fertile lands the Americas, Africa and Australia and the opening up of the black lands of Russia. This colonization took place coincidentally with the perfecting of machine exploitation of the soil and with the development of rail and ocean transport of food crops to the ends of the earth. With this combination of machine tillage and rapid transport, the vast new lands became the granary of the world. Their produce could be moved quickly to feed the swiftly growing industrial population of the capitalist countries or to alleviate famine in India or China. The soils and resources of the new frontiers and especially North America seemed inexhaustible. But not for long!
The Last Frontier
Shamefully the New World had been exploited and abused. The white settlers had scarcely set foot on the North American continent before the menace of soil sacrifice appeared. By 1685, streams muddy with silt were seen and increased floods, due to cutting down the forests, were observed. Undaunted, the destruction of field and forest continued. Washington and Jefferson among a host of other early American leaders were alarmed by what they saw taking place around them. They crusaded against destructive farming practices in word and deed, but to no avail. The rape of the New World continued and accelerated. When one tract of land wore out, new land was always available just a little to the west. "Every social and economic force seemed to encourage the spread of American agriculture. The invention of McCormick's reaper, in 1831, and the other inventions of farm machinery that followed it made possible the cultivation of more and more acres. When the iron plow proved inefficient in the sticky prairie soil, the self-scouring steel plow appeared in 1837 to accelerate the westward march of agriculture". (Man and the Soil, p. 46) Some few, such as Marsh, a Vermont lawyer and scholar, wrote with the ringing tones of a prophet, warning that the way man was going was "as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species" (The Earth as Modified by Human Action, p. 43). But all such warnings were ignored. "Between 1889 and 1906 the Oklahoma territory was opened to farmers. It was the last great area of restricted public farmland.... Access to free land had been the safety valve which had relieved the pressure of unemployment and economic distress". (Man and the Soil, p. 48) Now all this was about to change. Throughout history, when man had worn out land in one area, he had moved to another. Now, for the first time, there was no rich, new agricultural land to which man could go. The last significant frontier in the U.S. had been reached!
Decades of Destruction
The effect of reaching this last agricultural frontier was not generally realized at the time. But by 1914, when World War I commenced, it was becoming apparent. Jacks and Whyte estimated that more food-producing soil was lost to the world by erosion alone in the twenty years between 1914 and 1934 than in the whole of the previous historical period! (Vanishing Lands, p. 219) "During World War I, some fifty million acres of agricultural lands in Europe, exclusive, went out of cultivation. Consequently, 40 million acres of grasslands in the United States were thrown into cultivation for the first time. This land most of it in the area of western Texas and Oklahoma, extending into the bordering parts of Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska NEVER WAS FITTED FOR INTENSIVE CULTIVATION. "In the madness of the 'wheat rush' these lands were ripped open by the plow and wheat was cultivated on them by a process which is better described as 'mining' than agriculture..." (Man and the Soil, p. 49, emphasis ours) On many of these huge farms there were no permanent residents. Men came in the fall or spring, plowed and seeded the soil, and went away. They returned in the summer, gathered the crop and went away again. After the harvest, the bare soil lay unprotected, as dry winds swept across it and the fierce sun baked it and robbed it of moisture and fertility. Because of the richness of the soil, "Catastrophe did not come for several years.... When finally the one-crop-system of spoilation had exhausted the organic matter, the land was ready for the great dust storms". (Ibid., p. 49) In portions of the U.S. Plains States, Arizona, and California there are deserts where 50-100 years ago lush grasses reached up to the horses' bellies or higher, and bumper wheat crops were a yearly occurrence.
America Not Alone
The entire world joined the U.S. in this orgy of destruction. Jacks and Whyte state that deterioration of soil due to the unprecedented economic expansion of the nineteenth century was worldwide (Vanishing Lands, p. 219). When the soil deteriorates, the effect is the same as a reduction in the amount of land. So while population greatly increased, the earth suffered a severe loss in ability to feed its inhabitants! According to Jacks and Whyte, Africa ranks even ahead of North America in the extent and severity of depletion. General Smuts of South Africa once stated, "Erosion is the biggest problem confronting the country, bigger than any politics." Although the data is fragmentary, virtually every nation in Central and South America suffers these problems to some extent. In many areas, such as the wheat lands of Chile and the pampas of Argentina, they are severe. Overgrazing and plowing up grasslands to grow wheat have taken a heavy toll in destroying the choicest agricultural lands on the continent. The Amazon Basin and other tropical areas though of less value agriculturally also show excessive erosion. The story of topsoil depletion in the great Australian wheat lands and the grazing lands that border the great central desert sounds like a replay of what happened in the American West. Deforestation of mountains has also created a flood and siltation problem. In the grazing country of New Zealand, there has been extensive deforestation to provide pastureland, which, in turn, has been heavily overgrazed. Many steep slopes that should have been left to permanent forest were cleared to accommodate more sheep and cattle. Nor is it just the newer countries which are destroying their soil. Soil depletion is very extensive and acute in the great wheat-producing black lands of Russia and in the vast Eurasian grasslands. In India, too, this cancer has been spreading with startling rapidity as the population has increased. Looking at the world's soils and natural resources in the large, they are in general and with few exceptions characterized by similar degenerative processes. Ward Shepard, writing in Food or Famine, classifies these as follows: "1) In humid regions, water erosion is destroying sloping lands by virtue of poor methods of tillage and by overgrazing of pastures. "2) The cultivable grasslands the prairie soils of the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Russia are being depleted by one-crop farming, notably wheat, and by wind and water erosion. "3) Semi-arid grasslands in the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia have been severely devegetated by overgrazing, with intense wind and water erosion that in many regions is producing or threatening to produce true desert conditions. "4) The bulk of the world's forests are being destructively exploited, not over 12 or 15 percent of the total forest area being under scientific management. "5) In all these countries, poor tillage, overgrazing, and deforestation are wasting vast quantities of surface water by permitting it to rush into stream channels and out to sea instead of being absorbed into the soil by well-kept vegetative cover. This wastage causes desiccation of the land, the disruption of rivers and valleys, and an increasing menace to immense potential sources of hydroelectric energy." The earth's total forest and grassland cover has already been depleted well below the safety margin for maintaining a healthy climate.
Assessing the Erosion Problem
"Erosion has modified the surface of the earth more than the combined activities of all the earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, and tidal waves since the beginning of history, yet its processes are so gradual that we... have been prone to ignore it," Burges says in Soil Erosion Control, pp. 3-4. And ignore it men did! It was not until the emergence of the United States Soil Conservation Service in 1933 that man "began to grasp the ominous magnitude and menace of manmade erosion as a world phenomenon" (Food or Famine, p. 8). The seriousness of the situation was driven home by a series of calamities in the "form of searing droughts, stupendous floods, and continent-darkening dust storms that impressed on men's minds, to the four corners of the earth, the fury of the swiftly spreading revolt of nature against man's crude efforts of mastery" (ibid. p. 9). And what did the Soil Conservation Service find when they made their first survey? They found that man-made erosion was in progress on more than one billion acres of land more than half of the total acreage in the continental United States! They found that already over 100 million acres of our best cropland had been irremediably ruined for further cultivation! In addition, "An even more destructive and critically dangerous erosion has swept over the western grasslands of the Great Plains and intermountain plateaus after fifty or seventy-five years of over-grazing by livestock and futile and mistaken efforts to subdue these lands to the plow... Nowhere in America and almost nowhere in the world is the stupendous breakdown of great land masses and river systems more advanced, and in few parts of the world has man been more decisively defeated by nature than in the grasslands. "In the third great category of land forest land America has met the same decisive defeat at nature's hands" (ibid. p. 9). In spite of conservation efforts over the past 35 years, conservative government estimates indicate that right now nearly two-thirds of the 1.5 billion acres of privately owned rural land in the U.S. (about three-fourths of the total land area) needs conservation treatment!
Estimated Annual Loss
The U.S. Soil Conservation Service has calculated that "In a normal production year, erosion by wind and water removes 21 times as much plant food from the soil as is removed in the crops sold off this land." Man-made erosion from America's farms and grasslands alone is moving over three billion tons of soil every year down into our rivers and reservoirs and out to sea. It would take a train of freight cars long enough to encircle the earth at the equator 18 times, to haul away such an enormous quantity of earth! That is a loss of one ton of topsoil for every man, woman and child on earth. This is the rich topsoil that contains, in minerals and humus, the great reserves of plant food standing between man and famine! On the basis of 1,000 tons of topsoil to cover one acre seven inches deep, the equivalent of 10,000 one hundred-acre farms are lost in the U.S. to water erosion down the Mississippi alone every year (Soil Conservation, p. 9). That is about two million tons per day! "All of the rivers of the earth probably are carrying to the sea about forty times as much sediment as that carried by the Mississippi" (The Illustrated Library of the Natural Sciences, art. "Erosion"). What wind erosion can do was demonstrated by the unprecedented duster of May 11, 1934. It carried away an estimated 300 million tons of topsoil from western Kansas and parts of neighboring states. On the same basis as mentioned above, this one duster took the equivalent of 3,000 one-hundred-acre farms out of crop production! All these figures, of course, must be taken only as estimates. Erosion takes away the prime materials of the soil. Therefore, some experts believe the loss is far greater than is apparent from mere consideration of its actual weight or total quantity (Gustafson, Conservation of the Soil, p. 25). What is removed by erosion is the best part of the topsoil, the surface portion which contains health-producing microbes, humus and finished plant food. The one ton of topsoil that each person on earth loses each year contains enough plant food to provide that person's sustenance for years. This all means, of course, that soil conservation and proper agricultural methods could make the whole earth fabulously rich.
The Loss of Water
The tale of wastage does not end with erosion. It also includes the mass of surface water which is lost as it sweeps the eroded soil seaward. Under normal conditions rainwater goes into the soil to nourish plants and to slowly feed wells, springs, ponds, creeks, and rivers. Man-made loss of surface water is desiccating the earth. It is wasting and preventing human use of a substantial percentage of the total rainfall. The full fury of the destructive process is seen in our great river systems. With their channels clogged and ever rising by the deposit of our wasted soils, our rivers are becoming more and more incapable of safely carrying away the increasing quantities of wasted surface water. More than 8,000 of the 12,711 small watersheds identified in the U.S. mainland or 65 percent have conservation problems needing a solution (USDA Bulletin 263). Yet our engineers still think that man can conquer nature. They dream of restoring our broken-down river systems by simply erecting gigantic flood-detention and silt-detention dams. What a pitifully naοve approach to the problem! "All the river barriers, in the form of dams and dikes, that man can construct to repair the consequences of his own folly in raping the earth are puny compared with the cosmic forces of destruction he has unleashed over the land. "The engineers ignore the fact that nature herself, violently reconstructing entire watersheds in an effort to cope with the surplus runoff, has carved over 200 million gullies in the United States". (Food or Famine, p. 11) Further, because of nature's unconquerable power, "an estimated 2000 irrigation dams in the United States are now useless impoundments of silt, sand, and gravel". (from a speech "Can the World be Saved ?" by Dr. Cole) When will man learn that it is foolish to fight nature? When will he get in harmony with the God-given laws governing nature? And when will he see that foolish farming practices extract a terrible penalty in human health?
What Poor Soil Means to You
Plants must depend upon the available supply of minerals in the soil in which they are growing for the elements essential to their growth. Man and the animals he eats depend in turn upon the plants for these nutrients. In other words, you are physically, emotionally and mentally what you eat! If you eat foods which lack nutritional value, your body pays the penalty. Plants and animals raised on eroded and depleted soil are inferior producers of foods. And such foods result in sick, degenerate and disease-prone human beings. It's just that simple and that sure. "The most serious loss resulting from... soil exhaustion," warns Mickey, "is not quantitative, but qualitative. It has to do with the quality of life the soil supports" (Man and the Soil, p. 33). For example, both the birthrate and the virility of the population declined because of soil depletion in all parts of the Roman Empire except Egypt. It is recorded that the Romans marveled at the birthrate in Egypt, whose soil was fertilized each year by the Nile (Simkhovitch, Rome's Fall Reconsidered, p. 112). Soil lacking in calcium and phosphorus lacks the elements of proper bone growth of both animals and humans. Soils lacking in organically produced nitrates and other minerals produce vegetation lacking in the proteins essential to the building and repair of body tissues. It has long been known that animals raised on the world's choice limestone soils like those around Lexington, Kentucky and Florida's uplands, for example, have stronger bones, sounder flesh, greater endurance, and longer lives than animals raised on soils less rich in bone and muscle-building minerals. That is why breeders of race horses in the U.S. have practically taken over the Kentucky bluegrass region and much of Florida's limestone land. The same applies equally to humans. The baby won't have good bones if fed a formula made of milk from a cow whose feed came from a soil deficient in calcium and phosphorus. And the adult won't build muscle and good red blood by eating a steak from a steer fed on grasses and grain from leached and eroded soils devoid of protein-building minerals and iron. "Much remains to be done in the study of the relationship of the soil to the mineral and vitamin requirements of human diet, but much has been done. And what is known points unequivocally to the fact that deficient soils produce deficient men" (Man and the Soil, p. 3-4). This is why the growing problem of soil depletion is so important to you!
Only the Foundation
It needs to be emphasized that the erosion and soil depletion problems discussed in this article are only part of the gigantic agricultural crisis which is now looming up. Chemically unbalanced fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, pollution, the inferior products of "scientific agriculture," upset weather, and an economic stranglehold on the food producers these and other important factors are adding up to produce the greatest agriculture crisis in history. Watch for future articles which will discuss these important subjects and give their solutions.