by Glen Wallace
What is the timeline of the predicted length of time that industrial scale farming will be able to continue in the midwestern section of the US? I’m working under the assumption that topsoil is being lost faster than it is being replaced by the current crop cycle. My understanding is that the soil is being lost quicker than it is being replaced. I’m concerned that the doom and gloom chicken little sky is falling predictions about topsoil loss may be ignored in a ‘cry wolf’ reaction to other environmental predictions that either haven’t panned out or have not been realized on the time scale predicted by the alarmists. I’m thinking of the worst case scenarios that haven’t yet come to fruition such as those involving rainforest destruction, peak oil and the gulf oil offshore drilling accident. However, I think that the near complete loss of topsoil scenario is a real possibility that could pan out as predicted — if so, I think the results could be catastrophic.
Topsoil has a necessarily large content percentage that is organic matter — that is, it is largely made up of living or once living matter. Therefore, engineers cannot synthesize topsoil from something non living like petroleum oil or coal. Current industrial scale farmers are using the ‘savings deposit’ of thousands if not millions of years of grasslands and forest growth and withering cycles that have built up a deposit of many feet of topsoil that will only last so long at the current rate of topsoil spending. But once it’s gone, there is not enough available topsoil on the planet to replace any near complete depletion of vast swaths of midwestern farmland — even if we had the sorts of equipment to spread all that dirt, which we don’t. Imagine all the dumptrucks needed to haul all that dirt when you think how even a small city lot garden needs a whole dump truck load to fill it in sufficiently. But even if we could find all those dump trucks and soil spreaders, where would we find the mountains of topsoil that could be used to spread to sufficient depth over hundreds of square miles of midwestern farmland? No such mountain of topsoil exists. But if there is no topsoil, there will be no crops. If there is no crops then people will starve and we will be seeing famine.
I got to thinking about this topic when looking at the backyard garden and a particular patch where in a previous year I piled a rather large mound of raked up leaves one fall to cover up a patch of an invasive species of plant. The place where the mound of leaves was seems to be rather fertile now, but there is no noticeable rise in the level of dirt above that of the surrounding soil. So, it takes a lot of leaves and plant matter over a lot of years to yield a significant material gain in the mass of topsoil needed to grow crops or any other plant.
So, how many years has intensive, factory scale farming been going on compared to how many years the topsoil was being built up naturally, before the farming began?
Ok, I’ve done a little bit of research on the subject matter since the first rough draft of the above essay, and I still have more questions than answers. What is clear is that not sufficient empirical study is being paid to the question of topsoil loss. There should be hundreds if not thousands of regular measurement readings involving poking some sort of ruler in the form of a rod into the ground to measure the depth of the soil until bedrock or hardpan is reached. We need to find out if the crop waste such as corn stalks and bean plants left to wither on and into the ground is adding less than, the same or more mass and volume to the soil than ‘withdrawals’ by way of wind and water erosion. Well, maybe that is being done and I just need to do some more reading and research to find out. But it is a little remarkable how little popular attention is paid to the subject of topsoil loss when one considers the monumental importance of the subject — we all need to eat. And once the soil gets washed down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, there is no practical way to retrieve and desalinate all that soil once it reaches the salty seawaters of the Gulf. The best thing to do is prevent the soil from being washed away in the first place. I saw a very short documentary on the subject that I will post below that is put out by the Environmental Working Group that gives a glimpse into what is already being done and more that should be done by farmers and legislators regarding topsoil loss. I think that organization is a good resource on the subject matter at hand and I think I will be looking into their findings and ideas on the matter of topsoil loss.