Land degradation and soil erosion – particularly of agricultural/arable land and fertile topsoil – is a bigger problem than most people know.
Land and soil are very important resources to our future because of how they allow us to produce food and other resources (amongst other things).
In this guide, we look at how we can start to address agricultural land degradation and topsoil erosion with ways to prevent these problems, solutions to existing degradation and erosion, and strategies for the future.
What Is Land Degradation?
Read more in this guide about what land degradation is and how it’s impacting the world.
*NOTE: land degradation includes different types of degradation such as soil contamination, acidification and salinity. In this guide, we are only focussing primarily soil erosion, which is one of the major types of land degradation.
How Much Of A Problem Is Topsoil Loss & Erosion?
Read more in these guides:
- Soil Erosion Rates vs Soil Formation/Renewal Rates Globally, & In Different Countries
- How Much Topsoil Do We Need For Agriculture, How Much Is Left, & Will The World Run Out In The Future?
First, Identify The Cause Of Land Degradation Or Soil Erosion
There are a good couple of images at https://www.fewresources.org/soil-science-and-society-were-running-out-of-dirt.html – these images show the major types of land degradation, and soil loss by region.
What we know is that the causes of land degradation and soil erosion differ by country, state/province and region.
As an example, overgrazing is a major cause of land degradation and soil erosion in Africa. Comparatively, agricultural practices are the major cause of land degradation and soil erosion in North America.
So, the first step is to identify the major cause and secondary causes of land degradation or soil erosion in a particular area.
Second, Base Prevention Strategies & Solutions Around The Cause/s Of Land Degradation Or Soil Erosion In A Particular Area
Once causes have been identified in an area, prevention strategies and solutions can be based around those causes.
As an example, conventional agricultural practices in North America might involve using industrial machinery that involve heavy tilling of the soil, and application of agricultural chemicals like fertilizer and pesticides that erode soil health/fertility steadily over time (aside from the physical loss of topsoil – loss of soil health is a form of erosion too).
To combat this, more focus may need to be placed on soil conservation practices and sustainable farming practices.
There are many examples of sustainable farming practices, but a few key examples might be:
- Cover Crops – a crop/plant that is grown for the purpose of protecting the topsoil.
- Zero, Or Reduced Tillage – reducing the amount of times the soil is tilled or disturbed. The lower the tillage, the less disturbance to soil structure.
- Crop Rotation – increasing biodiversity and minimising risk of pests and diseases, by planting different crops simultaneously, or annually.
- Rotational Grazing – rotating livestock between grazing areas periodically.
- Greener Fertilizer – using fertilizer such a manure which contains less synthetic chemicals.
- Drainage – installing and maintaining field/crop water drainage system so soil isn’t washed away.
In addition to addressing current causes of land degradation and topsoil loss, practices and strategies can be implemented that prevent future causes of degradation and erosion becoming an issue too.
Specific Ways We Might Address Some Of The Causes Of Land Degradation & Soil Erosion
- Water & Wind Soil Erosion – farming practices like introducing ground cover, and building up the organic matter in the soil can help reduce the effects of water and wind erosion.
- Deforestation, Logging & Clearing Of Land – become more efficient with existing plots of farming land so less land has to be cleared in the future of agricultural land conversion. Introduce more tree planting and reforestation programs for farming land, logging land and cleared land affected by land degradation.
- Industrial Farming Methods > Organic & Sustainable Farming Practices – move more towards organic and sustainable agricultural practices that preserve land and soil health with minimal or even beneficial effects on yield and land production rates. Industrial farming methods like over application of fertilizer and pesticides, over grazing, over irrigation, too much tillage and so on – all extract more from land and soil without putting any nutrients back in the ground. Ground cover, no till farming, organic fertilizers and manure, drip irrigation, water and soil drains, and other techniques can all help preserve land.
- Farming Efficiency – become more efficient with existing farming practices. This means we can grow more food for a growing population on less land.
- Look At Our Diets – consider moving more towards plant based diets from animal products (meat and dairy). Plant based diets produce more food per person with less land than animal based products.
- Climate Change & Changing Weather Patterns, & Severe Weather Events – look at the impact severe and changing weather events are having on soil health.
- Water Pollution & Air Pollution – limit groundwater pollution which can contaminate soil or cause salinity issues, and limit air pollution (where excess nitrogen in the air and acid rain can cause soil/land degradation issues)
- Restoring Damaged Land/Soil – soil that has been contaminated can be aerated and treated. Additionally, top soil that has been eroded can be renewed (slowly). Soil that is too acidic can be rebalanced. Land that has been desertified by weather, mining or other factors can be restored in various ways. This is all expensive and time consuming though. Bioremediation and phytoremediation are two examples of new/developing soil restoration technology.
- Recycling Damaged Land/Soil – instead of restoring the land, it might be recycled with an end use in mind. For example, former mining sites might become sites for solar panels and wind farms, or land fill sites might become parks.
Summary – Addressing, Preventing & Solving Agricultural Land Degradation & Topsoil Erosion On A Macro & Micro Level
It’s going to take a comprehensive approach on both the macro level, and the micro level:
- Support For Farmers From The Government & Third Parties – farmers need education and support in the short term and long term. Farmers face the challenge of making a profit and covering their own risk. To do this, whilst also protecting the environment and considering sustainability, they need insurances, financial support and ongoing communication with the government and third parties who can help them implement solutions and prevention measures against further land and soil degradation and loss.
- Mapping & Tracking Of Degraded Land & Soil – better mapping and tracking of how much arable land and topsoil is being degraded and lost, and vice versa, how much is being restored, will help us meet targets and goals.
- Sustainable Farming Mixed With Conventional Farming – a balance needs to be struck for each farm on how they can combine the best aspects of sustainable farming practices and conventional farming practices that balance economic goals and well being of the farmer, with land/soil sustainability goals and society as a whole.
- GMO Seeds & Crops – some people support GMOs, whilst others don’t. There is both the short and long term safety and pros and cons to consider with their use. What we do know is that genetic engineering of seeds can produce beneficial crops with the ability to better resist pests and droughts, amongst other things. We have to decide how much of a part GMOs will play in the future of agriculture – as they could address some problems we have with both water and soil sustainability.
- Lab Grown Foods & Other Food Production Technology – such as lab grown meats. Lab grown foods and other food production technologies could take some pressure off farms to produce food, and subsequently take pressure off increasing soil erosion rates. We have to decide how much of a part lab grown food and other non land based food production technology will play in our future.
- Mass Land Restoration Projects – countries like China have already undertaken mass land restoration projects on land that was severely eroded. These projects are usually complex, very expensive and location specific. We have to decide how much of a role land restoration projects can play in our future to restore land that has been degraded and soil that has been eroded. Topsoil in particular takes 500 to 1000 years to form, so land restoration projects can only do so much.
- Consider The Impact Of A Growing Population – a growing population means more mouths to feed, and more resources required. It also places more pressure on land and soil to produce more food and other resources if we don’t improve efficiency or change the way we consume. Future land and soil preservation strategies need to take into account a growing population.
These are just a few points to consider.