Topsoil Loss: Civilization Rests on Topsoil

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

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.