Soil Erosion – the Quiet Crisis

Soil erosionThere is a quiet environmental crisis brewing and it’s very serious. It’s so widespread that it affects the entire world. It’s so dangerous that the great humanitarian, the Dalai Lama, considers it a greater threat than nuclear weapons. It’s sneaking up on us, it could easily hurt more people and cause more disruption than global warming, and for some parts of the world it’s already too late.

The problem is soil erosion.  Unfortunately, most environmental organizations aren’t paying too much attention to it and the media almost completely ignores it. After all, it’s hard to get excited about dirt!

Soil is where food begins.  Therefore humanity depends upon the soil for its food, and if enough of the soil goes, humanity will go with it. Without soil, not only will the crops we plant not grow, but other vegetation will die as well. Perhaps President Franklin Roosevelt put the threat best when he said, “The history of every nation is eventually written in the way it cares for its soil. The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.”

It turns out that the leading cause of soil erosion is raising livestock for meat. In fact, farm animals cause 85% of all the soil erosion in the United States and 55% around the world. Soil erosion is truly a global problem and it’s enormous in scale. In fact, 8 billion acres of farmland worldwide, an area the size of the United States and Canada combined, have been rendered useless due to soil erosion. Assessing the situation, University of Washington geology professor David Montgomery says that we are simply “running out of dirt”

Now to put all this into perspective, we have to first explain just how soil is formed and how it is eroded. Soil is formed by the action of water and wind on the earth. Over time earthen materials are transformed into soil that can sustain planted crops. This is a slow process. For instance, it takes about 200 years to form just one inch of soil in a state such as Iowa. Plants and vegetation hold the soil down and make it resistant to erosion. When the plants are removed, either by grazing or farming, the soil becomes liable to erosion by the rain and wind.

Now, there are 60 billion farm animals in the world today. That’s a lot of animals. In fact that’s almost 9 times the human population of the earth so they’re going to have a major impact. About half the crops in the world, and about two thirds grown here in the United States, aren’t eaten by people. They’re fed to farm animals. In fact, livestock are so resource consumptive, that directly and indirectly, through grazing and through feed crop production, livestock takes up one third of the habitable land on the planet. Some people try to say that pasture-raised cattle are not as bad as feedlot raised. But unfortunately that’s not the case, as we explained in our post about grass fed beef.

When cows and other cattle graze on grasslands they consume the grass, and then compact the dirt with their hooves. When this happens, the grass has trouble rebounding. And if too many cows are put on a tract of land, as commonly happens, the land becomes overgrazed and the grass may never come back.  Without the vegetation to hold the soil in place, the rain will then wash the topsoil away and still more will be blown away by the wind. When the soil is removed, much of it winds up in waterways. These waterways then receive a sudden increase in sediment which choke off fish and other aquatic life. Just as bad the manure washes into the streams, lakes and reservoirs polluting our water supplies.

When farm animals are fed feed crops instead of grazing on grass, soil erosion is caused indirectly. We are currently farming three times as much land as necessary, because we need to produce so much more in the way of crops to feed all the farm animals who outnumber us almost nine to one.

Soil erosion is also a driving force behind global hunger especially in the developing world where the shift towards increasing meat consumption is driving accelerated soil erosion. When a country loses its soil it literally becomes dirt poor. No longer able to grow the crops it needs, it must rely on expensive imports.

There’s a dollar cost to all of this as well. Lowered farm productivity, impaired flow in our waterways and water pollution, property damage and health problems caused by both the water pollution and large amounts of blowing dust, all add up to about $42 billion a year in the United States alone.

Time is of the essence.  For instance, in Iowa, like other states, the soil is being eroded 30 times faster than it is being formed. Since the seventies, almost a third of the world’s farmland has been rendered to low quality or useless because of soil erosion. Yet during that time, the world’s population has doubled and the size and scope of global hunger has increased as well. Don’t be misled by those who would claim that there’s plenty more farmland that has yet to be used, and that we could therefore produce lots more food by using it. With the exception of some potential farmland in the United States, the world’s farmland that has yet to be used is of very poor quality. And while the pace of soil erosion is quickening, restoring the soil takes a long time.

The biggest part of the solution to soil erosion will happen when people move toward a vegetarian diet. If there was less demand for meat, there would be fewer farm animals, there would be less grazing, less farming for animal feed crop farming and therefore much less soil erosion. It’s that simple.

We encourage those in the environmental movement who are resistant to acknowledging the role meat plays, to think about recommending a vegetarian diet, not only to help prevent soil erosion, but also to reduce the impact of animal agriculture on many other environmental problems such as global warming, rain forest destruction and water pollution.

We also encourage the media to bring the issue of soil erosion to the world’s attention. The clock is ticking and the soil is disappearing. Soil erosion is a quiet crisis that should not remain quite any longer. And neither should the solution to this crisis, the widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet.