We all know soil erosion happens, so what’s the big deal? Haven’t we been dealing with soil erosion since the days of the Dust Bowl?
While agriculture has done a good job of reducing erosion since the “dirty thirties,” we still have a LONG way to go if we are going to have the resource base necessary to feed 9 billion people by the middle of the 21st century.
Now we have a lot of environmental challenges out there — climate change, water quality, species decline — all of which are “sexier” than soil erosion. It's hard to make dirt attractive. I personally think that’s why most folks seem to prefer the term “regenerative agriculture” to “soil health.”
There is an old saying that goes “all civilization rests on an inch of topsoil.” This is a true now as ever. After all, you can’t be a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, let alone a lawyer or accountant if you have to spend all your time foraging for food. Without healthy soil, we can’t have agriculture, and without agriculture, our civilization collapses. Soil truly is the base of our existence. But while we focus on the “sexier” environmental challenges of our day, we are quickly losing the ground we stand on.
It’s true that we have done a lot of work to control soil erosion. I often tell folks that while the drought that hit the Southern Plains of the U.S. from 2011 to 2015 was worse than the one that caused the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s, we didn’t see the return of the dust storms. Yes, there was dirt blowing, but if you compare those events to the “dusters” of the 1930s — some of which would start in places like Oklahoma and continue on across the country, eventually coating ships miles off shore in the Atlantic with dust from the plains —it's like comparing a motorcycle to a semi-truck. We have done a good job at reducing erosion.
That said, we still have more to do. Oklahoma loses between 2 and 3 tons of soil per acre per year on average. That equals about 3 pounds of soil lost for every pound of wheat grown in the state. Worldwide estimates indicate that we are losing around 25 million acres of crop land annually to soil erosion. That’s roughly the equivalent of losing all the harvested crop land in Iowa to soil erosion every year. That’s not sustainable, whether you’re trying to feed the world or make a living farming and ranching.
The good news is that there is something we can do about it. Slowly but surely folks are starting to understand that the practices that address erosion and all those “sexy” problems like climate change and water quality are the same thing. More and more people are starting to realize that practices that mimic nature — no-till, cover crops and improved grazing — help address all of these issues. It’s also becoming more clear that these same practices can also have a positive impact on producers' bottom lines.
All this adds up to a way forward that has the potential to help sustain both our natural resource base and the profitability of our nation’s farms and ranches. There is a way forward. The question is, will we act on it before the “quiet crisis” of soil erosion starts to really make some noise?