Do We Treat Our Soil like Dirt?

Do We Treat Our Soil like Dirt?

Soil quality and maintenance is an often overlooked part of the health of communities, ecosystems, and even civilizations. Crop rotation and urbanization are just some of the problems affecting the sustainability of the land itself.


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Anthropology, Earth Science, Climatology, Social Studies, World History


Dust Bowl Wind Storm

American soil scientist W.C. Lowdermilk studied other countries and ancient civilizations to learn how best to prevent more soil erosion disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Photograph by the World History Archive
American soil scientist W.C. Lowdermilk studied other countries and ancient civilizations to learn how best to prevent more soil erosion disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
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The question above was from a 1984 National Geographic article about soils. It points out how we don't take care of the land we use to grow food. It's a question that still needs to be asked today.

Most of us pay a great deal of attention to what we eat. We want to know where our food comes from and who grew it. We ask whether it is "organic." But few people pay attention to the ground our food grows in.

Soil could use more of our attention and respect. After all, it is like the skin of our Earth. It is more than just dirt. Good soil has the nutrients we need to grow crops such as wheat, rice, and corn. Healthy soil makes it possible to feed Earth's more than seven billion people.

World Is Losing Its Soil

We often ignore the land we need for food. Scientists have found that one-third of the world's soil has already been damaged by erosion. Erosion happens when winds blow away the soil on top or when water washes it away. People have also been chopping down forests that hold the soil in place. Pollution is also doing damage, and we pave over good farmland in order to build roads, buildings, and parking lots.

These actions are causing us to lose soil faster than nature can create it again. The United Nations (UN) has raised the alarm. The UN is an organization that brings together almost every country to face world problems. It said that unless we protect what's left, good soil will keep disappearing. By 2050, there will be four times less farmland per person compared with 1960.

We must not take our soil for granted. Many civilizations have fallen apart because they ruined their land. They overused and mistreated their soil until it was too late.

Soil Linked to People's Survival

In the late 1930s, American soil scientist W.C. Lowdermilk went on a mission. He traveled across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East to understand why past civilizations failed or survived. He was looking at the effects of farming over the past 7,000 years. He also visited lands that had been cultivated for hundreds of years. He wanted to understand the link between soil and the fate of civilizations.

Lowdermilk's 18-month journey found that civilizations collapsed in part because the soil had eroded. Herds of farm animals sometimes grazed too much and damaged the land. Deforestation also seemed to have made things worse. Deforestation means cutting down large amounts of forest.

Lowdermilk also discovered that other societies lived for hundreds of years because they were careful about the soil. They stopped erosion and switched crops after a certain period of time. Planting the same crop year after year can wear out soil.

Study Put Out a Warning

"Soil and Human Security in the 21st Century" was a science study from 2015. The report said that more scientists today are working on the link between soil and health. It also warned that we must take better care of our soil. People need to do more to stop erosion and keep the soil healthy. These changes must happen soon, the study said. Our own future is at risk if they don't.

By 2050, there might be more than nine billion people in the world. More food will be needed. Our soils will need to make more to feed everyone. Otherwise, we might have the same fate as the civilizations that Lowdermilk studied.

Governments and organizations are doing more to teach people about the importance of protecting the soil. Scientists and farmers are leading the way. They want everyone to understand how healthy soil can make us healthier too.

It's about time. Here's to soil.

Dennis Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon and studied agriculture in college. He serves as National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment.

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Last Updated

May 9, 2024

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