While the U.S. has some major challenges with protecting its arable lands, our country isn’t alone — although it might seem that way if you spend any time reading farm magazines or scrolling through social media.
Truth be told, the European Union apparently has its own problems with soil loss and the message about no-till and conservation agriculture isn’t getting across fast enough.
Politico recently released an interesting report about soil degradation in the European Union (EU) and the potential consequences as the world population grows and arable land disappears. You can debate the media outlet’s intentions — and the cause of climate change in general — among yourselves. But the report is worth reading.
In “Mud and guts: Europe’s forgotten environmental crisis,’ the report says soil scientists have become alarmed at the effects of chemical spills, industrialized farming, urban sprawl and erosion on the region’s farm ground. Here are some highlights:
- The European Commission estimates Europe loses 9 million metric tons of soil annually — equivalent to 275 soccer fields each day. Regaining just 1 cubic centimeter of topsoil can take centuries.
- Around 12.5% of arable land in the EU is estimated to suffer from moderate to high erosion, although the rate varies widely from country to country.
- A 2010 study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre found that 45% of European soil has a low or very low organic matter content, especially in southern countries like Spain. Desertification has been correlated with low levels of organic carbon in soil, which regulates many vital functions in land and helps crops grow.
- An investigation into earthworm populations released by Rothamsted Research in February revealed sharp decreases in British farmland, showing some 21% of acreage studied had no surface-dwelling worms and only 16% had deep-burrowing ones.
- An estimated one-third of Italian farmland suffers from extreme erosion, the study says, noting the crop for grapes used in Prosecco causes at least 400,000 metric tons of soil erosion alone each year. The Czech Republic, Romania, Malta, Greece and Spain are among other hotspots for erosion of arable lands. In arid Spain especially, parched soils are blowing away.
Politico says lobbying by the governments of the U.K., France and Germany blocked efforts to introduce a European soil protection policy in 2007, citing costs and potential impacts on housing developments.
“It was a long and painful fight ... Nobody dares touch it again,” said BirdLife’s senior head of European policy, Ariel Brunner, in the report’s lead story.
Parts of farm policy, such as awarding cash bonuses for buffer strips along fields, have benefited soils. But while improving soil management was an overarching objective of farm policy reforms floated by the Commission last year, the issue has remained marginal in debates in Brussels and national capitals, Politico says.
Changes, when they happen, are taking place at the local level, where farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to take care of their fields if their farms are to survive in the future.
The NRCS has been pushing soil health very hard in the U.S. the last several years, and it will be interesting to see what the new Census of Agriculture says about farm conservation efforts when new data is released today. Please check the No-Till Farmer website this afternoon as we’ll be breaking news about no-till and cover crop acreage for the U.S. We’ll also share this on our new cover crop website, Cover Crop Strategies.
I think the bottom line here is that those who are successful no-tillers in the arid Great Plains and the U.S. in general need to step up — if they haven’t already — and be leaders in their communities and share the knowledge they have about making conservation systems work.
You may not convert someone right away, but a seed planted is better than a seed — and soil — wasted.