The world may be on the edge of unprecedented crop loss and food shortages if soil erosion continues to intensify worldwide.
Jo Handelsman, President Barack Obama’s former science advisor, examined why more farms are experiencing erosion and how it reduces crop yields in her book, A World Without Soil: The Past, Present, and Precarious Future of the Earth Beneath Our Feet.
South America is predicted to incur the largest increase in erosion rates in the next decade, Handelsman says. Already 68% of South American soil is affected, with 640 million acres deforested, 172 million acres overgrazed by livestock and as much as half the land in Argentina and Paraguay damaged by desertification.
As much as 6.4% of Bolivia’s drylands are eroding away between 55 and 551 tons of soil per every 2.5 acres annually. As more rural communities find employment outside of agriculture, farmers have been abandoning traditional farming techniques for less labor-intensive practices. If the trend toward less sustainable practices and the erosion continue, Handelsman says those lands will be agriculturally obsolete in a few years.
In Brazil, demand for bioenergy crops, agricultural exports and climate change are fueling erosion across the country. There are 79 million acres of “erosion hotspots” losing soil at more than 23 tons per 2.5 acres each year. Agribusiness contributes 22% of the GDP and ⅓ of all employment, but the country’s diverse crop and livestock operations have been destructive to soil. Handelsman cites satellite images that show vast tracts of pastures replaced with soybeans, sugarcane and maize — three crops that are responsible for an estimated 28% of Brazil’s soil erosion caused by agricultural activity. Some Brazilian states are already paying in excess of $200 million annually to address soil loss.
In times of scarcity due to crop failures and other disasters, countries have relied on international food aid as a safety net. But it may not be valid to assume that certain countries will have substantial food stockpiles in the future, Handelsman says.
Adopting practices that prevent erosion and restore soil health will be more important than ever to avoid an impending food crisis. Countries in South and Central America have made massive gains in their adoption of no-till in the last decade. As of 2018-19, nearly 69% of cropland area in the region is no-tilled for a total of 205.1 million acres. Ten years earlier, 122.6 million acres of cropland in South and Central America were no-tilled. Worldwide adoption of no-till is growing by about 25 million acres per year, and some experts believe all cropland needs to be no-tilled in order to sustain a growing population.
Rebuilding Soil With No-Till Helps Profitability: Keeping the soil permanently covered is the best way to increase profits in farming no matter where a producer lives or what kind of soil his fields have, says Juca Sa from Ponta Grossa, Brazil.
Conservation Tillage Driving Brazil’s Corn and Soybean Explosion: Crop production in Brazil has made dramatic gains in recent decades — and there’s potential for plenty more, say advocates of no till and conservation tillage in the country.
Roberto Peiretti’s 20 Tips for a Dynamic No-Till System: The veteran South American no-tiller and consultant shares insights on measuring the contributions cover crops make to the soil, and advice for managing the complex interactions that are a hallmark of healthy, productive soils.
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