Topsoil Loss: Civilization Rests on Topsoil

Actor Eddie Albert, long a champion of ecological causes, sounded the alarm in this 1980 address about the effect topsoil loss could have on American civilization.
By Eddie Albert
May/June 1980

Actor and amateur ecologist Eddie Albert warned the country about the dire consequences of topsoil loss.
PHOTO: EDDIE ALBERT


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Every morsel of food we eat . . . our clothes . . . our houses and most everything that's in them . . . each scrap of paper, from birth certificates to books to dollars . . . our fuel . . . even the very oxygen we breath: All of it comes from plants, trees . . . and topsoil.

When our European ancestors arrived on this continent, our topsoil averaged around 18 inches in depth. With our intensive agricultural practices, we've eroded it to around eight inches . . . that's all that's left between us and world disaster. When that eight inches goes, you and I go.

A Disaster Called Man

There are innumerable examples of civilizations which have already traveled this route. Trees were always the first to go. As the local populations grew, timber was needed for warmth, cooking, housing, and lime burning. Solomon cut the famous cedars of Lebanon for his great temples. Rome deforested southern Europe from Spain to Palestine. The whole of North Africa was cleared to plant more wheat for the expanding Roman population . . . and replanting was unheard of.

When the trees were gone, topsoil loss inevitably followed. Exposed to rain, wind, and sun, it lost its organic matter, its humus, its soil life . . . the spongy quality that gives the earth its ability to hold water through droughts. . The soil dried out and became dead dust. The next wind blew it away, or the next rain washed it down the river . . . and the earth died. The climate changed as the rain cycle slowed down as a result of deforestation. The wild grass that came up was soon demolished by hungry goats, roots and all . . . and the once glorious lands of trees, lakes, rivers, cities, palaces, universities, families, artists — millions upon millions of healthy, creating, achieving people — quietly blew away. Splendid civilizations collapsed and are now visible only as footnotes in the history books or a few fragments of pots on a museum shelf.

The cycle is always the same: Man comes . . . the trees go . . . the topsoil goes . . . the desert comes. We are following that path.

Centuries Lost in an Hour

It takes centuries of the weathering of rocks to grow an inch of topsoil, and thousands — even millions — of years to create a deep, fertile layer. But on shallow, sloping hillsides one great rainstorm can gash and gully a slope down to bare rock in an hour. When nature's protecting cover of plants and trees is cut down, or the carpet of grass with its interlocking roots is sliced open by the plow, the destroying power of rain or wind is multiplied a thousand times.

We Americans are destroying our earth many times faster than any people who ever lived. Man, deforestation, soil erosion, abandonment . . . that's the cycle. Another word inevitably follows: famine.

Our population explosion is at the heart of the problem. We can't increase food production as fast as the world population increases. There are three new mouths to feed each second . . . 230,000 new mouths to feed each day. But with each passing day we have less land to work with. To meet this growing demand, farmers are forced to put unbearable pressure on the soil . . . pressure it's unable to sustain.

In the past 30 or 40 years, the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia, nitrates, pesticides and herbicides, DDT, etc. have doubled and tripled the yield of grain per acre . . . but at the expense of the organic matter in the soil.

Rotation of crops has been replaced with monoculture: corn, corn, corn, or wheat, wheat, wheat. Everyone knows this method exhausts the soil and increases pest infestation, but people are hungry and the cash register is jingling. Yet for every bushel of corn we harvest, we lose two bushels of topsoil.

The practice of allowing the fields to lie fallow for a season, to rest, to restore the erosion-slowing organic matter, is also disappearing. Terracing and contour plowing, both of which are water-holding and erosion-preventing practices, are being dropped. The big new machines, you see, are too wide for terracing.

Living on the Margin

Then, too, because of the current high price of grain, there has been an appalling rush to put under cultivation millions of acres of the wrong terrain — marginal land, we call it — and farm it in the worst, non-conservative way possible. By marginal land we mean grassland, for example, meant only for grazing stock . . . or sloping land . . . or land with too little rainfall, requiring heavy irrigation.

On May 11, 1934, 350 million tons of Oklahoma's tired marginal topsoil, hit by a duster, exploded in huge clouds up into the transcontinental jet stream. Ships 300 miles out at sea were covered with Oklahoma. Twelve million tons hit Chicago alone. In Washington, D.C. dust particles seeped in through the windows and settled on Congressional desks. This disaster, the result of cultivating marginal land, took in one day the equivalent of 3,500 hundred-acre farms out of food production.

As a result, the government ordered millions of trees to be planted — green belts that would slow down the eroding wind and protect the topsoil. And for nearly 40 years the trees did their job. However, when the high grain prices hit in 1973, the Secretary of Agriculture ordered the green belt cut down. "Plant fencerow to fencerow," he said.

Between '73 and '74, 51 million acres were taken out of the federally subsidized soil bank program and converted to cropland without soil preparation or good conservation practices. Soil losses from 50 to 200 tons per acre resulted. Now much of the land is even ruined for grazing cattle. It will take 25 years to restore the green belts, and in many areas all the topsoil will be blown away in that time.

Three or four years ago, we added around nine million more acres of marginal land, but less than half was put under good conservation practices. The following year we lost, through the resulting erosion, 60 million tons of rich, vital topsoil . . . gone forever. Sixty million tons! Can you calculate how many starving children could live off that?

An Overdrawn Account

Each day we're losing 30 hundred-acre farms down the river . . . 10,000 farms a year . . . 15 tons of topsoil a second . . . a yearly loss of one ton for each person on earth.

We in America have lost about one-third of our arable land since we arrived here. At the rate we're going, we'll lose another third in the next dozen or so years, while the population almost doubles. Today, each acre feeds barely one person. At the turn of the century, 20 years from now — with the loss of acreage and our increased population — not one, but three people will be trying to eat off each acre that's left.

There are moments in the history of the world when a new time begins. Usually it's during a period of desperate crises. We are at such a moment of great change in our history, and we must be aware of it. We have a choice. We can stand off, let history repeat itself, and watch the death of our hard-earned country . . . or we can pull ourselves together, go into action, and solve the problems of food and soil. We have the know-how, the technology. We need discipline and courage, both good American words, but we also need a new awareness and greater vision.

Our task is . . . to rebuild the earth.


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